By Jean H Charles
Complaining about the Haitian legislature that spends its time doing nothing or blocking the forthcoming election on spurious arguments of constitutionality, go and read Gail Collins in her column in the New York Times: “The road to roads” and you will find the American Congress has not scored better than its Haitian brethren. Republican Congressman Bob Corker of Tennessee summed it best: “I’ve been here seven and a half years,” Corker said in a phone interview. “We have not solved one single problem since I’ve been here. It’s just so frustrating.”
I have often been asked to run for senator in my North District of Haiti; my answer has been the same, what the hell I would do in that melee! It seems to me there is a better way to bring about democracy.
Its Greek origin meaning demos or people and kratos for power, people power, a government by the people and for the people has been the canvas from Solon to Abraham Lincoln.
Democracy might have its origin in the city state of Athens in Greece, where Solon, the teacher of Plato, around the year 600 BC was called upon to help the city liberate itself from the enslavement of the majority of the population by the rich citizens. Nothing new under the sun!
He devised a middle way whereby each citizen would have a role, as such enabling a better functioning of the city. He put the term citizenship to a higher plateau where each person would have rights and responsibilities.
Today in Haiti being called “a Citizen” has an honoring connotation with the all rights thereto. You are given the better seat on the bus. You are looked upon with some deference. (How do they detect that you are a citizen has been often my question.)
How we can create a critical mass of citizens and, as such, better nations in this world, is the subject of this essay.
The Swedish or the Scandinavian model
I was reading recently that Sweden has succeeded in taking the downtrodden from Somalia and transformed them into successful Swedish citizens. I set out to find out how they proceeded to do it. The literature on good citizens leads to Barbara Cruikshank (1999) who instructed that:” citizens are not born, they are made; dependent, non-responsible, passive citizens need to be empowered.”
The Swedish government, in a rite of passage that should be the model for every country, provides each of its citizens who attain the age of 21 years old a lesson in good citizenship from the “Citizenship book”. The curriculum includes instruction on the democratic heritage, the common interest of each group and the glue of solidarity and the feeling for the collective as well as the art of compromise. The school creates a better person who is self-conscious about responsibility and willing to enter into a social contract for the betterment of all.
As such, it is not a surprise that democracy is alive and doing well, not only in Sweden but in the whole Scandinavia including Finland and Iceland that were considered the backward states of the region.
The European model
The old man Europe that produced World War I and World War II has evolved thanks to the US Marshall Plan in a continent where democracy flourishes maybe better in the northern part than in the southern one. The European Union, setting itself as a European united nations, might be more functional and more efficient than the real United Nations. It has fostered and increased economic cooperation between the member countries. Yet, it has not fared as well in its mission of incubating human rights. The hordes of Africans or Turks or Arabs who knock at the doors to enter into Europe are clustered in a no man’s land with no welfare and no future.
The American model
Democracy according to Solon started flourishing in the United States upon the end of the Civil War around 1864, when the works of the Reconstruction was declutched. As in Athens, democracy had a short life in America, since its father Abraham Lincoln was assassinated two years after the end of the war. A full century had to evolve before Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson joined hands to create a true perfect Union.
A black man (Barack Obama) has become president, yet democracy in the United States and its intervention in the world has been less than perfect. Rioting is taking place near St Louis, Missouri, at this writing around the death by an unidentified police of a young man named Michael Brown. The Operation Democracy sponsored by the United States in Iraq has been such a debacle that France is considering sending arms to the Kurds to protect them against the Sunni extremists.
Yet democracy is well and alive in the United States, with elections taking place at schedule time, the institutions functioning well and the infrastructure extending in the most rural areas. The glass is half full in spite of the comment of Congressman Corker that “we did solve one single issue”.
The fake nation and the fake citizen model
Amongst some of the 195 nations of the world, a majority of them fit the model or the canvas of fake nation and fake citizen scheme. The government makes believe that it cares for its citizen and the citizens make believe that they care for their government.
In my life, I have witnessed the unmaking of democracy by successive regimes that pretend to do better than the one before. The dethroning of the Shah of Iran was supposed to bring a government of the people by the people for the citizens of Iran. It has been anything but. Iran has been torn into a tyrannical state not only for its own people and for the region but for the entire world. The Ayatollah became the master ruler who defines the big and the small details that concern the state, muting the citizens into true zombies.
In my own country of Haiti, an old man of 87, made the confession with tears in his eyes that he is enjoying for the first time a government that seems to be caring for its people. Yet the compounding problems of Haiti wrought by the past governments in environment, mis-education, overpopulation, intergenerational poverty and the feeling for the collective are so severe that it that it would necessitate a government two thousand and fourteen times better than that one.
The old continent of Africa has moved from crass colonialism to crony paternalist regimes that seem to care only for the family member of the rulers and the very few loyal servants. The demos and the kratos of Solon do not enter into their line of governance. Zimbabwe is the extreme example where international as well as the national interventions have not been able to shake the old lion from domineering the entire field.
The old Soviet Union, the motherland of fake citizens and fake nations, disbanded through the clever gotcha of Ronald Reagan, has transformed itself into a state monopoly where the wealth of the nation is shared disproportionally with those closest to the government.
China is experiencing the model of: I will get you rich faster if you let me have the full command of the kratos/power. It has succeeded because not only it has raised some 800 million citizens from the squalor of extreme poverty but it has a piggy bank filled with 700 billion dollars in sovereign treasure, practically bankrolling the major powers of the world including the United States.
India, the oldest and largest democracy, has been a long way from the extreme policy of kratos/power to the demos/people. Only a few are empowered. The caste system maintains the rest in bondage. India’s progress is miniscule compared to the leap forward made by China.
The democracy model framed by Solon had a short life. A cruel dictator named Pisistratus and his son Hippias put an end to the experience some two centuries later (508 BC – 322 BC) with power going to the mob or a collective tyrant. Here again, nothing new under the sun. The road to democracy leads to the concept of empowering each citizen – even the would be citizen -- so they will have a keen sense of rights and responsibilities.
The fake citizen model wrought recurring disasters and calamities. The tragedy of fake citizen and fake nation is very explicit in the beautiful and historic city of Cape Haitian from where I am filing this essay. The iron covers of the sewers have been stolen for sale as scrap metal by some citizens. The holes are now covered with detritus causing immense flooding as soon as the rain comes.
I remember how my CO (community organization) teachers Frances Piven and Howard Cloward, immortalized in the Cloward-Piven Strategy some 40 years ago, were leading the way for a better New York City from their chairs as professors at Columbia University. In the end we will need in this world more Solon-like framers ready to build the canvas for a better world that will begin with each nation like ancient Athens.