Flip-Flops

While residing in the sunny south for these long winter months, I have become reacquainted with the unmistakable sound of one of the most ubiquitous pieces of footwear ever invented, the flip-flops.  Flimsy pieces of rubber precariously fastened to one’s foot with a plastic thong between the toes, flip-flops are worn by hundreds of millions of people all over the world.

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One would have to be extremely unmindful not to hear the approach of someone wearing them—flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap…

That same unmindfulness, however, may explain why we seem to have been oblivious to other sorts of flip-flops, all of which have perverted what we have long thought to be the cornerstone of our democratic way of life—the right of every eligible voter to cast a ballot on every question of significance to our civic life.  That is no longer the case.

In societies with a small population—ancient Athens, for example—eligible citizens had only to attend in the public square, pay attention to the arguments being presented, and direct their vote in favour of the one they preferred.  Majority ruled, of course, and so the will of the people was carried out.

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It was of little import back then that the only eligible voters were men, and only men who owned property.

In larger, more complex societies, such as the democracies we live in today, direct civic involvement is nigh impossible, certainly impractical.  Even as we watch the ever-accelerating unfurling of technology that promises (or threatens) to transform the very way we interact with one another, it is hard to conceive of a system that would allow every eligible voter to have a say on every issue affecting the direction of the nations we call home.

That may well be why one of the first great flip-flops in how we are governed came to be.  Instead of citizens having a direct say in the affairs of state, they began to delegate their voices to spokespersons elected to represent them.  Long before Abraham Lincoln had spoken his famous words about government of the people, democracy had already morphed to government by the people’s representatives.

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Whether that has continued to be government for the people is an open question.  And did no one hear the sound of the flip-flop?

Mind you, there are still examples of direct, one-to-one voting on issues affecting the commonweal.  Plebiscites or referenda are often placed before the people to decide on questions of import great or small.  Examples might include:  the secession decisions by thirteen states in the US circa 1860; the presently-dormant question of Quebec separation from Canada; the still-active issue surrounding Scottish independence from Britain.

A prime referendum example is the choice afforded the citizens of the United Kingdom and Gibraltar in 2016, whether to leave the European Union or remain a member.  Those wishing to leave, the Brexiters, squeaked out a narrow victory over the Remainers, thus establishing the will of the people.

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Second thoughts seem to have plagued the UK ever since, however, resulting in the government’s plan to exit the EU being roundly defeated in parliament recently by the people’s representatives.  The EU is not amused.

This change of course seems to me to be another example of a flip-flop in the way we are governed, in that, apparently, hundreds of thousands of British citizens, when given the opportunity to make their voices heard in 2016, declined to do so.  Only when the potential consequences of the referendum’s outcome began to surface did those recalcitrant citizens seem to realize they were hoist on their own petard.

If this case is any indicator, the lack of esteem in which their right to vote was held by so many citizens is a far cry from that of their predecessors who, on the fields of Runnymede in 1215, demanded and obtained such rights from King John.  Even eight hundred years later, how could such reluctant citizens not have heard the sound of the flip-flop?

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Over time, as people ceded the right to govern them to elected representatives (or had it snatched away), those very delegates moved inexorably toward the formation of collective positions on almost every issue facing their countries.  Political parties were birthed, they lived, and in some cases died, only to be resurrected in somewhat altered form.  This has been true in fascist regimes, capitalist unions, and communist societies.

It became the norm for these collectives to establish a platform, a set of principles and intentions upon which they would stand.  Indeed, parties were criticized, and continue to be, if they have no such guiding manifesto.  Of course, whether or not they govern according to the platform promises is another thing altogether.

All of which brings us to the point where the representatives we have elected to govern on our behalf, rather than listening to us to determine how we want them to do that, tell us what they will do—the proverbial stump speech.  The will of the people, even if representing only a majority of them, has become secondary to the decisions of the political party to whom we have granted power.  For voters, it is all too often a choice between the greater or lesser of evils.

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This is surely a flip-flop of the highest magnitude, where the directions in which we—collectively, by majority rule—want our nations to move can be easily subverted by the contrary will of those we have allowed to represent us.  It has been said that, as government expands, liberty contracts.

And when enough of us don’t even bother to vote, don’t care to have a say in who those representatives will be, we open ourselves to government by a small faction of the people—a tyranny of the minority.

We must stand up to this.  Our unwariness and our indifference are allowing the flip-flops in how we are governed to approach us, overtake us, and inevitably subjugate us.  Just listen and you will hear them—

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Flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap, flap-slap…

Social Contract

For a certain demographic in the province where I live, Ontario, the term social contract has a most unpleasant connotation, based as it is upon political events in the early 1990’s.  For my purposes in this piece, however, the reasons for that are not particularly relevant.

What is important is the need for a collective agreement among people in a society as to how we are going to live, which the maligned term might well describe.  But because of its history, and in order to expand upon the theme, I am using a euphemism, collective courtesy, to discuss that agreement.

Social-Contract

Whenever large numbers of people come together in a communal setting—whether village, town, or city—it quickly becomes necessary to establish and abide by certain rules of order.  Many of these are codified under the law and enforced by the legal authorities.

The scofflaws among us—and the outlaws—must be held to account for their actions if the established social order is not to break down.  It is a cornerstone of our society, dating back to the Magna Carta Libertatum in 1215, that no one is above the law.

Collective courtesy, however, is not a concept easily enforced by our legal watchdogs.  Nor, in truth, should it have to be.  Rather, it is a set of intrinsic behaviours on the part of all citizens—built-in, second-nature, automatic, good-hearted—designed to enhance the public good.

Examples of such behaviours abound:  returning a friendly greeting; standing to shake someone’s hand; helping to pick up something another person has dropped; holding open a door for another to pass; saying please and thank-you; turning off cellphones in public assemblies; praising publicly, criticizing privately.

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For some time, I’ve been conducting a scientific survey of the prevalence of collective courtesy in my daily life.  [Ed. note: not a scientific survey, more like an anecdotal scrutiny—but revealing].  The results are convincing me that, at least on a micro-scale, the occurrence of socially-helpful behaviours is diminishing.

Perhaps there are reasons for this.  Sigmund Freud believed it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct.  And in large communal settings there is ever a friction between the social niceties and our more basic instincts.  In times of stress and turmoil, we tend to revert to the latter, and I fear the former may be losing out to it.

One of my primary observation areas is the behaviour of other drivers.  A few years ago, while driving in South Africa—where drivers on two-lane highways are expected to pull over on the paved shoulder to allow faster vehicles to pass—I noticed that almost all drivers do so.  Not only that, the other drivers, once they have safely passed, invariably flash their lights in thanks.

Here, on the other hand, I have detected very little of this sort of adherence to collective courtesy on the highway.  I habitually leave more than a car-length between me and the car ahead of me, and when other vehicles attempt to merge from an on-ramp, I slow enough to widen the gap.  And then I take note of whether I get a friendly wave from the drivers.  It hardly ever happens.  The imprecations I toss in their direction would not be suitable if my grandchildren were in the car, but they make me feel better.

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By the same token, when it is I who is attempting to merge, I am constantly amazed by the number of drivers who speed up to narrow the gap I might well have been able to use, thus requiring me to slow precipitously and hope the next driver will be more understanding.  The imprecations I toss in their direction would not be…..well, you know.

Another area of observation is line-ups, whether at the bank, the fast-food joint, the boarding gate, the box office—and especially, the supermarket.  I have long been bothered by people who attempt to butt into line, sometimes while feigning ignorance (Oh, is there a line?  I’m sorry, I didn’t notice.  But hey, now that I’m here…).  Such people, I believe, should be told in no uncertain terms to back away.  They do not have a sacrosanct set of rules for themselves alone, though many seem to feel they do.

Self-entitlement is a bane on us all.

But where is the harm, I wonder, in allowing someone to go ahead in line when it makes eminent sense?  If you have six items at the checkout desk, for example, and are standing behind me with my forty-six items, would it really alter the course of my life if I permitted you to go first?

Or if you have a hungry, fussy toddler flailing about in your shopping cart?  Or if your aged spouse is obviously fighting fatigue, leaning heavily against the counter?  Or if you have a taxi waiting, meter already running?

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If my connecting flight is leaving an hour earlier than yours, will it really inconvenience you so badly to allow me through passport control ahead of you?  Do you not see the panicky look in my pleading eyes?

Not to present myself as some sort of latter-day saint, but I have done these things on various occasions.  And most of those who benefited (but not all) have thanked me.

Such collective courtesy is a strong glue, and vital to holding our society together.  It runs counter to the concept of zero-sum, where every action and reaction must net out to zero—for me to win, you must lose; and vice-versa.

The selfish among us appear to have no understanding of another important concept, pay-it-forward, which holds that an act of kindness is its own reward, and may prompt the recipient to do the same for someone else—a potential win/win/win.

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Rudyard Kipling, in The Jungle Book, wrote one of my favourite captures of this concept—the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.  It is we, individually, who build a strong society, and it is that same strong society that we depend upon in times of peril.

When we help each other, we all win—the very best kind of social contract.

So why are the results of my scientific survey (sorry, anecdotal scrutiny) so depressing?

 

Of the People

Ranking at or near the top of any list of definitions of democracy is this one from Abraham Lincoln:  …government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The phrase was part of his dedicatory remarks at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863, when twenty-five states of the Union were locked in a great civil war against eleven states that had seceded to form the Confederacy.  It was a short speech, ten sentences in length, forever after regarded as a plea for true equality for all people of the American nation.

One problem with the definition, however, is that it also aptly described the government of the enemy, which was elected in 1861—presumably of the people, by the people, and for the people of the Confederate states.

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And complicating the case further, under both governments, almost without exception, only white males were deemed citizens with full voting rights.  Where was equality for all?

The lesson I take from this is that any definition of democracy is only as legitimate as the people who profess it.

No one anywhere ever said that democracy is a form of government imposed upon a people whose traditions run to the autocratic, totalitarian model, for that would betray the very notion espoused by Lincoln, that democracy is of the people—that is, arrived at through the exercise of their own free will.

Nevertheless, many nations have tried over hundreds of years to do that very thing, and many still do so today.  It rarely takes. Until those under the yoke of oppression decide of their own volition to rise up, to throw off that yoke, and to determine their own form of self-government—as it was with the signing of the Magna Carta—there will be no democracy for them.

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Look at it this way.  If you tell me that your objective is to help me learn how to think for myself, and if together we are successful, what will happen when you realize that my independent thinking leads me to a different end-point than yours leads you on substantive issues?  Will you applaud, despite our contrarian viewpoints?  Or will you seek to correct me, to bring my thinking in line with yours?

If the latter, you will likely succeed if you are more powerful than I.  But by forcing me back into your own thinking, will you not have failed in your original objective?

Democracy is like that.  If it is truly of the people, it almost certainly will not look the same in every society claiming to embrace it—because people, despite our biological similarities, are shaped by our environment, our experiences, our learning, and our culture.  And those are distinct from place to place to place.

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Even within one democracy—our own, for example, or that of the great republic of Lincoln—there are differences among the governed people.  Because majority rules in democratic elections, there will always be those happy with their government, and those in opposition.

Joseph de Maistre, a nineteenth-century writer and diplomat, wrote that, in every democracy, people get the government they deserve.  I suspect that is true, even more so today, given the woefully-low voter turnout in our elections.

He also wrote, …false opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing.  In our democracy, we can choose what we want to believe, and we are free to espouse it.  Many of us, alas, have no idea of the origin or veracity of the so-called truths we champion.  We simply echo them, as if truth can be created through the repetition of a lie.

Being intellectually lazy, many of us choose to accept, with no critical reflection, what we are told by our democratically-elected leaders.  Or, if we don’t like the sound of that, we opt for what we are told by those who democratically oppose our leaders.  A few of us choose neither, opting instead to believe what we hear from demagogues and the lunatic fringe.

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And so, we find ourselves in a metaphorical darkness—facing each other in a circle of sorts, hunkered around the fire of our democracy—chanting our respective mantras back and forth, as if in a ritual war-dance, none of us listening to the other.  To those lurking in the dark, beyond the flickering light cast by the fire, our chants must sound like caterwauling—loud, nonsensical, and pointless.  And if those lurkers mean us harm, our brayings must also sound welcome.

In 1944, Winston Churchill said, …[the people] together decide what government, or…what form of government, they wish to have in their country.  When the people of any democracy, including our own, decide through their actions—through the exercise of their civic responsibilities, one of which is to become informed—the majority will rightfully have its way.

But we can also decide not to act, thereby abrogating our democratic opportunity to choose the government we prefer.  And when we do that, we leave the right to choose in the hands of others—others whose opinions and beliefs we may not agree with.  In that case, we have no right to bewail the government we end up with.

In the end, I suppose, it comes down to one simple truth.  If we are to get the government we deserve, we had better be sure we represent the sort of people we want to be choosing it.

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