Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach…” — Alexander de Tocqueville, from Democracy in America.
On a typical weekday, an ordinary woman from Hempstead, New York taught me an extraordinary lesson on the meaning of democracy. I sat in awe, staring at an elderly American woman with a colored knitted wool cap who could barely walk. She went up to the podium and demanded a playing slide be placed for children in her neighborhood. Of course, it wasn’t so much the request that left me speechless but the notetaking, the nodding, the necessity of being heard by decision-makers, representatives and citizens of that town, who acknowledged her request. For a moment, this old lady’s voice was heard.
It is true that the ‘culture’ of democracy is not always fully practiced in America. Evidence suggests music was played at ear-splitting levels to “humiliate, terrify, punish, disorient and deprive detainees of sleep” during interrogation. Moreover, Farmingville, Long Island was a scene of the highly publicized racist stabbing of 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero. However, there is a search for truth, discussion and debate–a ‘culture’ that promotes this. There can be no truth, or even a search for truth, without free discussion and related freedoms of inquiry of thought and opinion.
Although the word ‘reform’ is heard in countries like Jordan, a deep gap remains between what is said and what is seen. Despite being a small Middle Eastern country that continues to live up to its reputation as a mediator and a safe haven between its troubled neighbors, the ‘culture’ of democracy must include profound moments for ordinary citizens. Representation must be as memorable as the town hall meeting I attended.
The fifth Parliamentary elections will be held in Jordan this November. In the absence of true political reform and understanding of political choice and accountability, Jordanians may vote for a relative from their tribe, despite knowing little about a candidate’s policies or values. And for some voters, who are mostly apathetic, a small portable heater is all a candidate needs to win their vote. Policies are lost in a meal of rice, pine seeds and meat that triumph over a candidate’s vague policies or lack of coherent messages. Parliament does not represent the people if the people do not vote on values and public policies.
It is difficult to see signs of true reform in this year’s elections and I hope that Jordanians will look beyond the banners that dress the city. It’s not that I don’t understand the importance of choice. In fact, I have voted in nearly every election, so far. Nevertheless, I am wholeheartedly disenchanted with an elected Parliament that votes to put journalists on trial and a Parliament that cancels sessions because not enough elected officials bother to show up. The latest lassez-faire approach by Parliamentarians led to its own demise; the King dissolved it a few months ago. Since 2001, hundreds of temporary laws imposed by the government were implemented in Jordan. Some promoted economic liberalization and women’s rights that have benefited the country, while others such as the 2001 Public Gathering Law–if a permit is denied for a gathering, it cannot be appealed–have effected civil liberties. However, moderates admit that an elected Parliament would not have passed the progressive laws. The government in the past drafted liberal press and publication laws, yet the elected Parliament demanded the arrest of journalists based on so-called ‘press crimes’.
A democratic ‘culture’ creates an understanding of an individual’s rights while simultaneously recognizing the concept of citizenship. A former government official recalled a story of an elderly colleague who told him offhandedly, “I hope to become a minister and after a week they can fire me. I don’t care. I will always be known as a minister and people will always have to respect me.” He eventually became a minister. At an ‘Honor’ Killings conference held in November by a local research foundation, a Parliamentarian raised his hand to speak. He read off some notes. His voice becoming louder, angrier while ignoring the studies being presented, he finally dismissed the whole concept of a conference on ‘honor’ killings. As he was storming out, a member of Jordan’s forensic team stood up and said, ‘Don’t you want to listen to a reply to your comments? You just want to speak but not listen?’ The Parliamentarian walked out.
I am, in general, an optimistic person. Optimism is a much better choice. The Middle East, however, remains stagnant and stubborn, reckless and reclusive. And there is a fine line between optimism and denial: the difference between cleaning the dirt, and hiding it. Until we begin the fundamental process of creating a ‘culture’ of choice, ownership, leadership, critical thinking and creativity, we will continue hiding the dirt. In the absence of such cultural traits, I have come to conclude that work ethics cannot be acquired on the job. Democracy is an evolving culture. It begins at home–choosing activities, respecting other opinions, food preference. It evolves at school–creativity, critical thinking, analysis.
What is our political culture? I try hard to search for this ‘culture’ of democracy. It is scarce and sporadic like an unfinished work of art. It may be in a 140 character tweet with a #JO for Jordan, a literacy program for street children or in the excitement of a talented violinist. It is seldom seen in a big place here. Sometimes, I wonder if we will reach a point where the meaning of democracy is not only political but also cultural, intertwined in the decisions we seek and make in our relationships and activities. When we hear that democracy is a journey, I believe this is the journey of which they speak. Elections are not. They are the end results, and much is lost in between. When I look back at that winter day in New York, I realize it was a silent epiphany for me. For Americans in the room, it was politics as usual. It was already embedded in their daily life.