The Challenges of Democracy


Since 2001, New York City has been rebuilding, refashioning, and reinventing itself. People have learned to cope with terrible trauma, and the landscape is becoming new again. There is a haunting and beautiful memorial occupying what were the footprints of the Twin Towers. But another question has escaped is somewhat—that of the regeneration of our democracy.

At the time of the attacks, and in the months afterward, some of us—citizens, designers, architects, philosophers, clergy, diplomats, war veterans, victims’ families—supported various suggestions for a contemplative historical project, a museum that would tell the story of the truly hard work of building a democratic society. Others wanted only to commemorate the attacks, others the people lost there.

The reasoning behind a project to celebrate democracy and human rights and to educate people about just how mind-bending and difficult it can be to try to build a democratic society was rooted in the contest of tendencies between free people and the tyrannical forces that would kill innocents on a mass scale. We are not that way; we believe in liberty and human dignity and the right to live free from the turmoil of other people’s violent obsessions.

The challenge we faced, then as now, is whether we can see ourselves slipping out of genuine democracy. Can we uphold the truths Thomas Jefferson held to be self-evident: “that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? We are free enough to be able to speak honestly: we don’t always get this right, not for all people.

And since September 11, 2001, we have sacrificed some of our basic liberties, in exchange for a feeling of safety. We have seen very public debates about the merits of the PATRIOT Act (in caps, because it is an acronym, artfully crafted), about warrant less wiretapping, detention without charge, violent interrogation techniques, drone strikes and “targeted killings”, about whistleblowers, WikiLeaks and NSA surveillance.

Many may forget, but when George W. Bush’s Dept. of Justice, under Attorney General John Ashcroft, was found to be working with retired Admiral John Poindexter—once convicted of crimes against the Constitution—on something called Total Information Awareness, there was a massive and diverse public outcry and Congress put a stop to it. But now, 7 years after it was reported to be likely, it has been revealed the NSA is spying on all Americans’ communications, using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as a premise.

That revelation is of the most serious sort: it tells us not that one individual, one leader or one operative, made a choice to go a little berserk on information gathering, but that every aspect of our national security structure has been reoriented to confuse security priorities with legitimacy in practice. The one does not automatically follow from the other, and that principle is, and must remain, sacrosanct in our democracy.

Two years ago, a non-ideological spontaneous and diverse grassroots movement of engaged citizens began the occupation of Zuccotti Park, in lower Manhattan, only blocks from the World Trade Center site, the focus of their protest, famously, Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street was not—as some in the mainstream media suggested—a liberal or partisan subgroup; it was a show of collective will for the concept of stakeholder rights and participatory democracy.

A lot has been made of the peculiarity, in organization and make-up, of what has come to be called the Occupy movement; some blame this peculiarity, or a perceived pathological disorganization, as being to blame for the movement not achieving more in the way of reforming Wall Street. But that criticism misses the point, on many counts: first of all, the Occupy movement was about focusing attention, getting people thinking, asking important questions, and demanding a voice; secondly, on all of those counts, it succeeded, dramatically, and with remarkable speed.

Across the United States, and in other places around the world (Tunis, Cairo and Madrid, were precursors; Moscow, London, Rio de Janeiro, and many other places have followed the Occupy example), the Occupy movement attracted people from all walks of life, of all ages, and of all political persuasions. The reason was that it provided a platform for open public debate, and the movement created global media platforms through open source processes.

Occupy meant, essentially, the awakened liberation of the mind of the citizen, and the organized engagement of communities of people with issues of public controversy. At Zuccotti Park, it was possible to hear hipster radicals and Vogue-worthy investment bankers discuss World Bank loan policy and the logic of “job creation” in relation to US fiscal policy. It was possible to hear military veterans of several generations discuss with peace activists how education ties into national security policy, differently, but relevantly, for the short, medium and long-term.

One could attend general assembly votes on a range of different issues, and have one’s voice heard by a community of strangers whose common ground was the privileging of citizenship over power. And it would be hard, if one spoke to those who lived at the encampment, to find evidence of even one day passing when the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, was not discussed in relation to some aspect of the health and vibrancy of our democracy.

Democracy is not a posture or a philosophy; it is a social organism. Democracy lives and breathes in the voices and relationships of citizens dwelling within it. The engagement of citizens gives substance to democracy; without it, it fades and is destabilized. Power structures and established processes of government are not enough to make democracy live and breathe.

As we rush through our lives and watch the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks go by, along with the 2nd anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street insurgency (of always-active citizenship and civics, not of arms), we should think about the state of our democracy. Are we what we pretend to be? Are we doing justice to the legacy of those who have been lost, or those who have lifted up their voices, to speak for all of our rights, as citizens?

As we agonize once again over a senseless mass killing, this one at the Navy Yard, near Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, we should think about Christina Taylor Green, the little girl who died when a mad gunman attacked a street-corner meet-your-Congresswoman day in Tucson, Arizona. She was already engaged in civics, out of natural impulse and curiosity, because she believed people could do something to make a better world. Are we honoring her expectations and her example?

We can say that we are, but it matters what we do, and how we interact with our professed ideals, matters. We need to be forthright enough to ask, with a solemn and genuine curiosity: Have we, in service of the perceived comfort of various abstractions we refer to, collectively, as “security”, let go of a basic collaborative infrastructure that guarantees democracy and actually safeguards our freedoms?

What we know, 12 years on from 9/11, is that the only way to be true to the value of what we would protect is to ask whether we are doing all that we can to live up to the complex and slippery challenge of manifesting, and keeping, a true democratic republic. If we do not ask that question, if we do not make demands of our leaders, if we do not life up our voices, to have a say in what happens, we cannot.

The process of “rebuilding after 9/11″—so often heard in relation to the physical landscape—is also an emotional and a political challenge. In all that we do, we are building, or ignoring, or uplifting or eroding, the practical viability of our most cherished democratic principles. We must, when we remember tragedy or are stilled by the sacrifice of others, remember this as well.


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