An education- part I
Navarra, early May 2011. Grape juice in Spain is like grape juice nowhere else. José and I are waiting for the bus back into town. The streets are quiet with the siesta. We have found a bar that is slowly reopening, spilling its shade into the heat. He has suggested that I try this cool ambrosia called mosto. I will spend the rest of my stay in Spain guzzling it by the litre.
It is May in the interior north. The Kingdom of Navarra. Wine country. The last independent kingdom of the Iberian peninsula to bow to the power of Madrid. Flat, dry. We have just wandered through a castle from the Middle Ages, one of those monuments that I thought only existed in fairy tales, with endless nooks and crannies, surprising turrets sprouting up where you least expect it, winding staircases up to gardens, down to bedrooms with views over the plains of grapevines. Walls providing shade from the sun, connected by passages swept by the wind. The stunning product of some crazy, impossible imagination of architecture, the majesty of possibility set into stone, from which you can gaze out to horizons interrupted by swells of the Pyrenees foothills, marked now by the anachronistic incongruity of lazy arms of wind turbines beating the air.
José is a hospital laboratory technician in his mid-thirties. Incredibly, by my Canadian standards, he does not have a permanent job. He is on call for a couple of hospitals in case of emergencies. But no one seems to need him while I am around. I struggle in my broken Castillian to explain that there are towns in my country that would fly him to their hospital to service it, that would feed him on their budget, that would pay him enough to live off for a month for just one week’s work. He laughs unbelievingly. Emigration does not appeal to him – it is far from my family, he says, a little sadly. How is it, I wonder, that such valuable skills go unutilised in this country? How is it that someone should spend this critical phase of his productive life waiting for a call that never comes?
We amble to the bus stop from the bar, sucking the last flesh off peach pits. The mosto has provided us enough energy to contemplate the act of eating. As we meditate on the juicy nutrition, we absent-mindedly squint at posters. Local elections are approaching. José suddenly says, “That one.” He indicates with a tilt of his jaw a woman’s face on the wall. She looks thrilled to be on the poster, beaming at someone just off-camera. I look at him inquiringly. “That one,” he says again, licking his fingers as the juice runs down them. “Said she was a socialist. Didn’t win an absolute majority last time. So made a coalition with the conservatives to hold onto power.”
He snorts contemptuously as he turns away. A pot of shrubs wilts in the heat. He tosses his peach pit into the dry soil there in disgust.
Euskadi, mid-May. Gernika. Synonymous with modern-day crimes against humanity. On initial approach, there is little about the town to differentiate it from many others in northern Spain. As I study it, I realise that it is uglier. Buildings downtown less gracious, more modern. Or am I merely letting my macabre imagination project its pall over the town?
In the quiet isolation of my travels, I am peripherally aware that there is a major concentración going on in Madrid today. But it will only be in the coming week that Spain will erupt into a confrontation between the established political structure and the will of the people. I will not know it yet, as I arrive in this city that represents so much of the tragedy of twentieth-century Spain.
I explore the Museo de la Paz. It walks you through the bombing of Gernika. It tries to explain why. It tries to explain evil. It tries to explain history. It does not always succeed, quailing before the impossibility of the task. I am most struck by a temporary exhibit tucked away in its basement. A photographer has gone across Spain documenting buildings that were part of the Civil War. Once used as detention centres for fighters, labour camps for dissidents, summary execution sites for opponents, the edifices have now simply blended into the fabric of ordinary Spanish life, memories deliberately obscured by a country eager to forget.
Wounds still seep in this incredibly young democracy. My parents married in a democratic, supposedly backward India at around the same time my closest Spanish friends were born into a dictatorship in allegedly advanced Europe. For many, it is better that the architecture of this country’s grief be forgotten. You maybe talk about it with your friends, Enrique tells me, but otherwise, you never know which side whose family was on. Still.
As I wander through the heartbreak of history, kilometre zero in central Madrid from which all distances are measured is now occupied, occupied by those who are demanding a real democracy now – democracia real ¡ya! Europa para los ciudadanos y no para los mercados. The bitter demand of the movement is a Europe for citizens, not for markets. The economic crisis has crippled an entire generation in Spain, with unemployment in young people at a staggering forty percent. People are angry at the government, at why it chooses to pay bankers hovering for a profit off of Spain’s woes at the expense of citizens’ own well-being. What happened to the promise of democracy?
In this country, this one above all others which still mulls over the bitterness of repression, why have the last three decades come to this confrontation? It reminds me of the movement in which my grandparents were involved immediately after independence in India, ye azadi jhuia hai! – this freedom is false! – arguing that despite all the promise, all the engagement, all that people had invested in the freedom struggle, nothing had changed for India’s dispossessed with the arrival of self-determination. The rich were still rich, those who governed looked out for their own interests and everyone else just scraped along.
Are Spaniards now waking up to the same realisation? Must they revolt against the system which they had been told was their aspiration, but which served only the interests of those telling them so? Must they speak the unspeakable that electoral democracy with its petty alliances and allegiances, with its contracts and its codes, has failed the people?
Perhaps, perhaps not. But something, some grand purpose has united a hodgepodge of environmentalists and youth activists, the unemployed and queers, solidarity activists with Palestine and with Western Sahara, alter-globalisation activists and those who seem to have no real agenda except a vague desire for change. They seem to agree that there is no hope for change in the elections. They seem to have decided to try direct, deliberative, dissident democracy instead.
Cantabria, late May. Everything in Spain happens much later than my North American standards allow. I am always the first to hover at the doors of restaurants lazily opening for lunch at 1pm. In one village, I look imploringly at the waitress at the bar at noon, and she sighs, saying, “All right, come on in, I’ll lay a table for you.” I never once have a real Spanish dinner, stuffing myself full of appetisers by 8pm and then falling asleep at a decent hour, although I am not sure why, since nothing is open when I rise early in the morning. As a result, I miss most of the frenetic activity that takes place in the week following the Madrid concentración. I read of developments the mornings after in the newspaper, while I wait for Spain to wake up.
Stakes have risen after a Madrid court rules that the encampment of the democracy movement at Puerta del Sol must be disbanded when campaigning ends, to allow for Spain’s traditional day of reflection before a vote. The citizens refuse, saying their claims rise beyond that of any electoral campaign. They are not advocating for or against any party. They are advocating for Spain, for the end of corruption, for the end of the power of bankers over their futures, for a different way of doing democracy. The elections are in fact irrelevant to their purpose and their presence. The entire country holds its breath, eyes on the heart of the country, awaiting the day of reflection.
I am in the seaside town of Santander on that day. I watch the effusive reporter on television, as she rattles on in Castillian at a speed which I have begun to comprehend. Everyone is waiting to see whether the police will enforce the court ruling. She seems to be enthusiastically proclaiming the fact that firefighters that are driving slowly through the crowds in Madrid – is there a fire, I wonder? – are honking their horns in support of the activists. The demonstrators are roaring in delight at the affirmation.
I am eating stewed clams for appetisers with friends. I am only nominally vegetarian in Spain. The food is simply too scrumptious, and it is ecologically sensible to consume what is found locally in this maritime environment anyway, as I proceed to pick delicately through the bones in the anchovies in the main course. My friends’ eyes sometimes drift from the conversation to the breathless reporter onscreen in Madrid. No one directly addresses the protests, except the young doctor amongst them, with whom I have developed a collegial solidarity, in sympathy for the twenty-four hour shift he is about to start. “There’s a concentración happening here in Santander too,” Manuel says, as solidarity camps in defiance of the court ruling mushroom in central plazas across the country. When I say I might go visit, he says, “Well, there probably won’t be many people there … not like Madrid.” I am unsure whether he is suggesting that I not go at all, or that I go to the one in Madrid instead.
I am predictably too early when I show up at Santander’s main plaza in the late afternoon. The pictures in the newspaper the next day will show much larger crowds than what I see. There are a few people at the general assembly here, the gatherings that have become the signature of the deliberative approach of these concentraciones. This idea of the plaza will become a meme I find grating, but I concede that this open space of convergence gives a neutral space for many people to gather, making no one’s turf everyone’s turf. A circle of people in the plaza earnestly discuss how alternative models of economies could deal with the crisis of unemployment. The people sitting on the ground engrossed in debate are young, but there are older adults standing in the circle around them, listening gravely. Everyone seems to be reflecting, appropriately enough for the day of reflection. Banners are plastered against the walls of the gracious buildings rising over the square that provide shade from the sun. One says “¡toma la calle ya!” – take the street now! People are tired of the political establishment setting the rules for how to run their debates, of elected officials making excuses to take power away from the people.
“What has woken people up?”, I ask Alejandro. He smiles wanly – “we were made to believe we had become a rich country, no longer the poor, feudal farming cousin of the rest of Europe.” His smile fades. “But now we find out it is a lie – that is what has woken us up.”
My perpetual grief with the complacency of North America rises in my throat at his response. Even when we know we have been lied to, why do we not sit together to talk? Why are shopping malls our only places of convergence in our ridiculous continent across the ocean?
As I retire for the evening on the day of reflection, the police have not yet arrested anyone in Madrid. They are nowhere to be seen in Santander. But then again, perhaps I have left too early.
Madrid, mid-June. The splendour of what was once the centre of the largest empire in the world. It is a boisterous, gracious city, in ways I had not expected in a country teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
In fifteen years, Spain has gone from hosting few immigrants to one fifth of the population being foreign-born. Even in small towns, Pakistanis sell me kebabs in Castilian worse than mine, as Moroccan women in hijabs push strollers through the street. A Honduran woman runs the Internet café where a man is excitedly yelling into the phone to Guinea. Madrid, as the epicentre of this demographic earthquake, is dazzling. People from half the world are drawn here, by the boom in the Spanish economy, fuelled by European subsidies and an inflated real estate market. No more. I have seen endless empty condos through my trip, awaiting buyers who shall probably never come. But Madrid continues to teem with cosmopolitan flair, seemingly oblivious.
Art is ubiquitous here. I have always been fond of churches, despite my deep irreligiosity. But the San Francisco Basilica that lies not far from the Royal Palace, just beyond the excavations that reveal the city’s foundations under Muslim rule, takes my breath away when I walk into it. It has works of Goya casually thrown around its heart-stoppingly majestic interior. Further along the waterway that Madrileños kindly refer to as a river, is the Matadero, the newly renovated art complex that is oddly named after an abattoir, because after all, that is what it once was.
And then there is the Tabacalera. It is an old tobacco factory in Madrid’s Lavapiés neighbourhood, once the pre-Inquisition Jewish quarter, with gates locked at night, but now crawling with the artists and the anarchists and the immigrants and the queers – no walls yet. The Tabacalera is currently owned by the local government after the factory went out of business. Officials sought ways to make a profit off this building, by finding prospective developers, until the neighbourhood organised to squat in it to run a community arts centre. The local government eventually acceded to the squatters. An agreement was reached that the neighbourhood could use two floors of the tobacco factory for the arts centre for five years. Roberto says they are one year into their mandate, and so far, so good.
I wander through it on a Thursday night, for once out late enough to get a taste of Spain as it should be. I have had a light Indian meal where I chatted in Bengali with the wait staff, my mother tongue sounding incongruous in between the shouts of “¡hola, qué tal!” A man in the group next to us sitting on the patio is getting drunker and drunker. He gets up periodically and starts to make speeches loudly about politicians being bastards. The poor owner of the restaurant hovers, beseeching him in his best Spanish not to disturb others. Like most youth in Spain, I am shocked that the conservatives, despite it all, have won the elections – the first time since the installation of democracy that some provinces have chosen to hand power to those once tarred by association with the dictatorship. I myself am still embittered by the recent elections in Canada: despite the beginnings of intelligent, creative responses to the Conservative agenda, they won a majority anyway. I feel a deep sympathy with those in Spain who think electoral democracy is broken.
There is an electronic music show going on in the central performance space of the Tabacalera but I wince at the grinding, wheezing noises, so Roberto guides me down to the basement where there is a contact improvisation class happening by a wall given over to some beautiful graffiti. We push through the bar where loud Spaniards of all sorts of racial origins are laughing and commiserating and drinking and conspiring. We end up nursing a generic brand of cola as we squeeze into the back of a performance piece in which everyone else finds the dialogue very amusing, but it is too late in the evening for me to work out the language when I have little context for the plot.
I look around at the milling crowd. Young black kids, hip Spaniards in their thirties, a Filipino couple brazenly making out in the dim light of the tobacco factory’s courtyard. I have wandered through the maze of nooks and crannies this neighbourhood has claimed for itself in this building that the government has abandoned, trying to sell this space for a profit, to the highest bidder. But the people said no. Roberto says that the committee is hard work, with lots of e-mails, and running electronic consensus is far from simple while in-person meetings take a long time. Budgeting is a perpetual challenge, but they are not broke yet. It is fulfilling to help create this space, he says. He may get tired but for now, it is fine.
Just before I arrive in Madrid, a general assembly that lasts late into the evening, with media outlets across Spain running constant commentary, decides to shrink the encampment in Puerta del Sol, to keep just the bare bones of the movement’s presence there in order to allow the square to return to some of its daily function in Madrid’s civic life. Tourists, including me, flock to the remaining site, where earnest Europeans who have held solidarity protests elsewhere try to find a common language through which they can talk to those lucky enough to be unemployed enough to stay behind to staff the tents. Angela Merkel stares grimly from posters, wielding scissors in one hand and billions of bailout euros in the other. Germany has also just wrongly accused Spain of exporting cucumbers that caused a deadly food poisoning outbreak. The chancellor is currently not very popular in Madrid.
I reflect that here too people are refusing to let Spain be sold for a profit to the highest bidder; they are claiming back their own space from those who claim to represent their interests. But what now? None of my friends in Spain is still very sure about where they are heading. All they say is that the political system no longer speaks for them.
As I leave, preparations for Madrid pride are underway. Traditionally, there is a festival in the square in Chueca, the centre of Madrid’s expansive, dynamic gay life. The conservative mayor of Madrid announces that the pride festival cannot be held in Chueca due to security concerns over its size; it will be moved to a larger venue elsewhere. Radical queer activists ambush him when he is taking his dog for a walk. No one is hurt, but everyone is abuzz. Were they right, were they wrong? Alejandro tells me that well, the mayor is right that the Chueca square is very small. But others respond derisively. I stroll into Chueca on my way to bed one night, but come upon an extensive gathering in the square. People sit on the ground and many like me on the periphery stand. They speak passionately, suspecting the worst: the mayor does not care about security; it is pure and simple homophobia. In any case, they say, the mayor cannot take power away from the community. It is our pride, our neighbourhood, our plaza, not the mayor’s.
The assembly does not result in any definitive conclusion before I need sleep. One impassioned woman does say that to forge ahead, to fight the mayor, does everyone agree to come to another assembly in their square, in their neighbourhood, in their Chueca tomorrow at 10pm? (Why so late, I groan internally?) There is a raucous cheer of concurrence, with everyone making the hand signal now famous in Spain for agreement.
I depart Madrid with a sensation of jealous hope. The Spanish seem to be on the slow road to exploring alternatives to the malaise that has gripped Western democracy. They are taking time to reflect, to engage in very public debate. They are making debate a citizen’s job again, rather than just a parliamentarian’s. They have come to the conclusion that somehow, democracy as it exists now is not real, serving only the interests of those who have co-opted its institutions. The democracy they imported at the end of the dictatorship was readymade, the only model possible in a world sharply divided by the Cold War. But it has failed millions, and Spaniards are now considering other options.
As I follow the Spanish press from afar, as I read the intelligent nuance with which my friends write to me, even when they are not directly involved in the movement, I get the sense that they are aware they have no answers on how to move forward. But they seem to have hope that the answers will come. With intent, with deliberation, with time. The Spanish are retaking their plazas, claiming them for their own, not just to protest their fate, but also to imagine their future. It is slow, it is stumbling but it is stunning. Spain is already a landscape marked by magical, other-worldly castles constructed centuries ago. Who knows the promise that may lie in what the country builds now?
An education- part II
Outside Kolkata, a few years ago. They enter, bowing and scraping. My usually mild-mannered grandmother harrumphs grumpily from her bed. I stand by the door, trying not to radiate my disapproval too palpably. They make polite conversation with me, the foreign grandson, breathing their ingratiation.
“I take it you want my donation to the Party,” my grandmother reaches for her bedside purse.
“With the elections, ma’am … your late esteemed husband … such a good mayor, your grandfather …” the Party workers take turns attempting obsequious deference to both grandparent and grandchild. I make no move to demonstrate any financial sympathy.
“Yes, yes,” my grandmother interrupts them irritably. She has clearly heard this bit about her husband before, although I am curious to hear them talk of my grandfather who died when I was too young to care about his politics. “Here, take the money. But do you actually do any work with it? I only see you when it is time to vote, and then you disappear for another four years.”
“Of course, we work very hard, ma’am, that’s why you don’t see us … we are working so hard …”
“Really? Nothing seems to change, though,” my grandmother says icily.
Silence. Someone awkwardly tries to murmur about the many-headed nature of the monsters of capitalism and American imperialism.
“Have a good day, gentlemen.” She deliberately returns her attention to the television. My timid, anxious grandmother is at her most supreme at this moment. The workers are dismissed. The Party’s former first lady of the neighbourhood has spoken.
When they have gone, she sits brooding for a while and then says to me, “All they care about is numbers now. The poor? The oppressed? No. Just numbers. How much money, how many votes.”
The bitterness in her voice is apparent, the disillusionment of someone betrayed. She has told me stories of the Party in the years just after independence, when it was banned, and the underground work that the women’s committee did for it, she even coercing my father as a young boy into it. She is the last of that generation to survive into the new India, and she does not seem too pleased.
My reading on this trip in India is I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, discussing the civil rights movement in the depths of Mississippi. It was where the most dispossessed, the most brutally oppressed communities were, and yet, the region gave rise to some of the most successful, sustained organising in the movement. Charles Payne, the author, concludes that the core of the success comes from the careful, committed nurturing of personal relationships that led to the movement’s victories. When the civil rights movement abandoned its focus on nurturing personal, individual relationships and instead resorted to broad principles and detached theorising, it lost its power. It became coopted, removed from the people who otherwise held it accountable with the gentle discipline that is required in being true and kind to one’s friends.
I suspect that this aspect is where grand nation-building projects, based on the most beautiful of ideals, stumble. India, with its unwieldy one billion, is simply too large for any real mechanism of accountability to work. You can try laws and you can try regulations, but if someone who is representing your interests can disappear to a distant capital, and never have to look you in the eye, all the ideals in the world will not help to build a different future. The promise of the Indian freedom struggle came to an end with its transformation into a remote, centralised power, a parliament in New Delhi’s majestically grand buildings. The radical redistributive vision that was part of the movement disintegrated as leaders became subsumed in the machinations of global politics, navigating the strings pulled by imperial powers of the Cold War, even despite the birth of nominal independence. When leaders in Delhi no longer had to face their constituents in relationships of daily life, what strings did India’s freedom footsoldiers, the fighters no one remembers anymore, have left to pull? All they had was their gaze, reminding a friend not to forget them.
My grandmother was alone in holding the Party’s representatives to distant legislatures accountable. She had the privilege of her position: the widow of a former mayor, the mother of a respectable neighbourhood boy working abroad, the grandmother to foreigners. She could shame the workers into accountability. But she was alone.
Real movements are not limited to demands made to governments in New Delhi or in Madrid, in Cairo or in Washington. Real movements lie in the relationships of real people who cannot escape looking in each other’s eyes.
Montreal, late June 2011. I sulk as I trudge forward in the immigration queue. Welcome to Canada, the signs say. I am not feeling particularly welcome. I am reluctant to leave the glory of Spain, with its rousing streetside debates that I only marginally follow, with its newspapers trying to comprehend a giddyingly new civic participation in matters that matter. I fled Canada the day after the federal elections here, deeply disappointed in the victory handed to the Conservatives despite the beginnings of a country-wide movement to envisage another Canada. But the powerful minority that guards the limited Canada that exists now has won. And the population calmly, docilely continues as though it did not matter. This country is not the country I love. I do not feel welcome.
I do not pay much attention to electoral politics, but the Conservative victory is bitter to me because of the promise of a newly emerging citizen engagement came to nought in the election. But Spain nourished once more in me the possibility that democratic debate in Western liberal nation-states can be moved away from the limitations of parliaments, that people can indeed awaken to take control of their own lives, that they can trust each other to manage the messy process of democracy and dissent and debate all by themselves: they do not need a political class to do so for them. We live in societies that have outsourced jobs to the extent that even democracy is a job for the people who are paid to do it, a specialised task beyond the ordinary person. But the Spanish seem to have rediscovered that no, democracy is indeed our work, sustaining that engagement, building a culture of collaborative contestation that entices me with possibility.
I return to Canada brimming with this optimism, but somewhat defeated by the complacency of what I see around me, in a Canada grown drunk on oil wealth and mining booms. A Canada complacent in its sheer dumb luck in having grown rich, forgetting to nourish those who have accompanied it along the way. But Spain demonstrates that even those countries complacent in richness face collapse. Canada will not float on a commodities rush forever. Will Canadians be the change they want to see? Will they nourish debate and dissent as they have done in Spain? Will they build a movement that reflects the Canada that is to be, a Canada that nurtures and nourishes as it challenges and changes?
I sigh, as I hand over my passport to the official. She smiles softly when she returns it, saying, “Welcome back.”
Like it or not, I am home.
Northern Ontario, early August. I post a link to my Facebook page. In the isolation of my northern life, I resort to virtual political stimulation with my friends faraway as I tread uncertainly in the immediacy of my new surroundings. Adbusters Magazine has called for people to occupy Wall Street on September 17th, in the spirit of reclaiming the financial centre of North America for the people. I am captivated by the imaginative symbolism of this gesture. Retake space for ourselves, the callout suggests, in the way that people in Cairo claimed Tahrir as a space for liberation, the way that Madrilenos reclaimed Sol for dissent.
I have always been leery of demonstrations, struggling to express my vague anxiety around crowds as political sentiment. I once heard Dorothy Cotton speak, a woman deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the United States. She perhaps articulated my discomfort when she said that they marched in the civil rights movement because there were places where they were not allowed to march: it directly challenged an injustice, it transgressed physical boundaries.
Marches have since become a standard part of the North American organising repertoire, but I wonder whether we have marched in the wilderness for a few decades now, hemmed in by the demands of the state – municipalities and the police politely limiting dissent – that our marches be along “acceptable” routes, not going anywhere that actually symbolically disrupts the workings of an everyday life that oppresses. When we did dare to defy, authority reacted with force at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, or at the G20 fence in Toronto. When the Tamils in Toronto block the city’s busiest highway to draw attention to the plight of their families suffering under government fire in Sri Lanka, people burst out in fury at their audacity. But months later, that moment crops up again in conversation even in my distant, northern Ontario life. People remember it, they recall the point. All those who bitterly complained that blocking a commute in Toronto does not save lives in Jaffna forget that it does however interrupt Canadian complacency.
And no one likes their complacency interrupted.
People in Spain defied authority and disapprobation by gathering in Sol, perhaps insulated from negative consequences by the sheer numbers that were moved to mobilisation. They found a space that symbolised the very heart of the country, taking it back from the ordinary cycle of everyday Spanish life, an everyday life that was becoming increasingly untenable for many in Spain. They chose to make Sol the space to restart, to build a new Spain. They choose it as a place to speak to one another about this new Spain.
Such spaces for public debate are glaringly lacking in contemporary Canada. We do not have a cultural reference such as the plaza. We only seem to gather in malls. North America’s atomised anonymity is an obstacle.
Trouble finding a space to come together seems ironic in a country this vast, but perhaps therein lies the problem. I now inhabit the expanse of the north, where the moose sometimes outnumber people on winding roads through endless boreal forest. We are a country accustomed to space, accustomed to privacy, accustomed to not gathering. We strike off into the wilderness on our own, exploring. Our historical tendency to decentralisation of power, with one of the constitutionally loosest federations in the world, where power has to travel across vast spaces, makes finding one space that locates the core of our collectivity difficult to identify.
But is it really? I can easily imagine the symbolic power of congregating at the tarsands, or even camping out in Parliament, those institutions that have succeeded in removing power from the people in this country. The forces that currently control Canada are not wandering the parks of Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. Those spaces have little symbolic value if we choose to express our rage at the present, and our hope for the future. The powers that take this country on its path so removed from our desires have symbolic homes. We need to find them.
Shortly after the Adbusters link, I post a light-hearted status on Facebook about my discovery of pickled eggplants late in life. Within a few hours, this posting receives 17 comments and 11 likes. Not one comment appears under my link on the Adbusters campaign. I delete it, heart-broken.
Toronto, mid-August. Jack Layton dies. I am drinking a hot chocolate in a Toronto café, on a southern spice run from my northern life, when I casually flip to the news headlines on my computer.
I am surprised to note that I am suddenly blinking back tears. I am not even sure I liked Jack Layton, the leader of the once-socialist union-based party. But he clearly symbolised something that Canada decides it has lost. The palpable grief that moves through the country moves me. Commentators try to put their finger on why he should have been so central to people’s emotional lives, in a country that does not invest too much interest in its politicians: we require competence, but not much else.
But no commentator quite gets what it is I feel as I watch the state funeral, as I watch how many people mourn him so publicly. A surgeon in my town snorts dismissively at the beatification of Layton, but I do not tell him what it is I feel. I feel restlessness in the Canadian left, increasingly dissatisfied with its fate, with its options. The unusually public grief, with even the country’s proverbial two solitudes united in mourning of a man whose warmth in public life was palpable goes beyond that loss alone. It is also a public gesture of people trying to find their way. The loss of Layton symbolised the loss of hope we no longer had for the country.
People gather, I notice, in imaginative, unpredictable ways in this grief. They scrawl messages in chalk on the wall. They line his funeral procession route through Toronto in silence. When I return to the union towns of the northern mines, some private businesses have lowered their flags to half-mast. People weep as they wait in lines to sign condolence books at constituency offices across the country. They try to stutter through in front of a camera what it is that has gone. And I think, I think, I think, I begin to hear Canadians beginning to talk to one another. Trying, across mountains, through the grasslands, over the forests, by the ocean. Not entirely succeeding, but something has shifted. And no one quite knows what, just yet.
People try to figure it out. An organisation that was formed to contest the Conservative agenda asks people across the country to organise meetings in the wake of Jack Layton’s death, reminding of his parting words to Canadians not to lose hope. A meeting was organised in my northern mining town. I am away that week, so I write to the person in charge, an anonymous name over the Internet, to express my regrets. It looks like at least twenty or so others have expressed interest in attending over the Internet. I am happy, upbeat.
A couple of weeks later, I write another note to ask what the results were of the meeting.
“No one showed up,” comes the flat response.
The organiser and I exchange a few desultory e-mails about the difficulty of encouraging people out of their comfort zone. Maybe Canadians are not ready to talk just yet. The Internet poses this challenge: no one really knows each other, and everyone feels a little uncomfortable at the prospect of showing up to a group of strangers. In our vastness, we are a country accustomed to being strangers to ourselves.
Social networking is supposed to be the source of the Arab Spring. But the force of its waters came from its sheer physical presence. Solidarity over the Internet comes to nothing without that face-to-face accountability that comes from actually finding a meeting place, a congregating spot, a place to hold hands to create another world.
New York, late September. One of my hosts works at a non-profit organisation that peculiarly has its offices near Wall Street. (The rent alone, I wonder?) She tells me about the motley crew that has set up camp near where she walks from the subway. She is not entirely sure what the point is. I cannot answer her, but I read with mounting irritation the condescending media commentators carp on about the necessity of demands. I mumble to my host that the point is merely that they are there. That they talk. That they take up space. The point is that they are making space. It is enough that the media is now having to talk about them. But I am not sure she understands.
Stephane Hessel, whose short essay Indignation launched the wave of protest in Europe is in New York the week I am. The Spanish movement is called “indignados” in honour of his work. His essay has just been translated into English and he arrives from Paris that afternoon, his 90-odd year frame still spry, still articulate despite surviving near-execution by the Nazis. I arrive early since I anticipate that there will be crowds lining up to hear him.
There are none. The small auditorium eventually fills up, although I suspect that there are very many journalists and dignitaries. Not ordinary people flocking to hear words of wisdom. At least I get a good seat, I tell myself.
I think I hear Mr. Hessel make reference to “Bill and Melinda” in the crowd. My eyes swivel across the semicircular room to the man who does indeed very closely resemble Bill Gates. I watch this person as he watches Mr. Hessel speak about inequality, about the unsustainability of a system where the richest man in the world should be so many billion times richer than the poorest. The alleged Bill Gates does not seem to flinch. I begin to doubt it is him. Perhaps a decoy, a double, while the real Bill Gates is being rich elsewhere.
A young woman who is involved with Occupy Wall Street is in the room. Although this event happens days before police brutality brings the movement into the media glare, most people in this room seem already sympathetic. The young woman talks of the process of exploring, of debate, of reflecting, of not giving into demands for demands. People applaud her.
Stephane Hessel is gently encouraging. He expresses admiration for their indignation at inequality. But he also chides the movement, saying young people should not forget the importance of engaging in the political process of electoral democracy because that principle is at the core of liberal nation-states. I bristle at this suggestion, but I consider it is forgivable of a 90-year old man who has been an architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I can imagine why someone who has spent of much of his life invested in perfecting the structures of liberal democratic nation-state should encourage its continuation. But I am too shy to ask him out loud about the failure of its mechanisms of accountability. Has it not become true that it only answers to those who bankroll it, and not to those who every few years tick off a box?
But he does encourage the notion of refusing to let others force them into making demands. The point is the process, after all. The point of democracy is to discuss, to debate. Action will be necessary, of course, but it will become natural, with time. Do not cave to the pressures to terminate debate, he says. Do not cave.
I leave the talk not inspired, but somewhat reassured. The Occupy movement is building a culture of continued citizen-based discussion, which is at the core of democratic practice. The word “parliament” comes from Latin roots that mean “talking,” not “answers.” We live in such a mediatised environment where journalists are trained to seek out easy storylines, rather than portraying nuanced complexities. I am drawn to the romance of not acceding to calls for “demands,” which are easily reportable, easily fixed. Consensus takes time. The discussion itself is the point.
We might have already won if we can continually construct public parliaments in places where we tell those who wield power that we are daring to imagine our own futures. We might have already won if we learn to talk to one another so that we challenge those who have decided to speak to others for us. Formulating demands suggests asking of others, instead of creating for ourselves. But perhaps if we occupy the place where power has put on its most ordinary, everyday face, we must take on that power with purpose, with intent and have no demands of anyone, except ourselves.
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