A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants. It’s a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it?
Well, if I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that’s not so simple. It doesn’t mean just to stop my talking and wait till you’re finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that’s what we’re speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?
by Mustafa Abdelhalim, guest contributor
Last week, Egyptians went to the polls to participate in the first presidential election since Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011. Going forward, the new president, who will be elected in the second phase of elections in June, should look to examples from other countries that have undergone successful democratic transitions.
When asked what leader outside their own country they most admired, a recent poll from the University of Maryland found that 63 percent of Egyptians answered Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicating that Egyptians may be interested in learning from Turkey. Turkey can serve as a relevant model because it has successfully dealt with three key challenges facing Egypt — the relationship of the army to a civilian government, economic growth and fostering positive international relations.
by Kate Moos, executive producer
Parker Palmer is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and the author of nine books, including well-known titles such as The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak. He is the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, perhaps most recently the Utne Reader’s 2011 Visionaries, 25 People Who are Changing the World.
His new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, takes a deep and wise look at the loss of values that have impoverished American democracy and public life. Palmer proposes ways to rediscover what the great political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called “habits of the heart” that are essential to a democracy.
“The human heart, this vital core of the human self, holds the power to destroy democracy or to make it whole. That is why our nineteenth-century visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, insisted in his classic Democracy in America that democracy’s future would depend heavily on generations of American citizens cultivating the habits of the heart that support political wholeness.”
We corresponded by email over the course of several weeks for this interview.
Parker, you cite five habits of the heart you feel are necessary to moving forward as a democracy: understand that we are all in this together, develop an appreciation for the value of “otherness,” cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways, generate a sense of personal voice and agency, and strengthen our capacity to create community.
In and of themselves, none of these habits seem too complex or difficult for us to achieve, and I’m guessing most people would find it easy to embrace them, at least conceptually. What prevents us from becoming better at practicing these habits?
You’re right, Kate, of course. Saying the thing is always easier than doing the thing! So it’s important to understand why we have trouble embracing good ideas and allowing them to animate the way we live.
We resist the first habit of understanding that we are all in this together because it’s easier to pretend that we live in individual silos than to allow ourselves to get the fact. To take but one example, that the large and tragic achievement gap in public education between white kids and kids of color is something we all pay a price for sooner or later. If my son is doing well in school, great; I’m happy. But if his black and Latino classmates are doing poorly, I need to be unhappy about that, very unhappy, and advocate for the changes in public education that would help close the gap.
Among other things, that gap helps explain the fact that we now have more African Americans somewhere in the judicial and penal system than we had in slavery ten years before the Civil War. And that’s not only costly to this society in terms of the threat of crime, the cost of incarceration, etc., it’s flat-out evil in the way it crushes the spirits of young people who have just as much promise as my son does.
So, when you step outside your silo and understand your interconnectedness, life becomes more complicated and ethically demanding. But the bottom line is, what do you stand for: narrow self-interest or the common good? And do you understand that narrow self-interest can be self-defeating while caring about the common good can be a way of caring about yourself and those you love?
I’m 72 years old, so I reflect more often on the fact that I’m going to die than I did when I was 30, or 40, or 50. On that day, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be saying to myself, “Boy, am I glad that I spent all my years on Earth feathering my own nest and not giving a hoot about anyone other than my family and friends!” I’m pretty sure I’d rather be saying, “I’m glad I did what I could during my brief sojourn on this planet to help bring a caring community into being, to love my neighbor as myself.”
As you know, Kate, I say quite a lot in the book about each of those five habits, but let me say a few words about one more: “Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.” This one is right at the heart of our democracy, both institutionally and personally. America’s founders, for all their blind spots, gave us a set of governing institutions whose genius lies in their ability to hold tension creatively over time. Democracy is all about taking the tension of our differences and using it as an engine to keep moving us forward on important social issues. So why is it hard to live this one? Because it requires us to resist the ancient and well-known “fight or flight response” that kicks in when we find ourselves in a tension-ridden situation. Our instinct is either to run away or to punch out the source of the tension!
We all know at some level that if we can hold tension creatively — in the family, in the workplace, in the larger community — we often emerge with a better solution to the problem than if we ran away or used force to control the situation. My favorite close-to-the-bone example involves raising a teenager. Good parents can see their teenage child’s potential and “true self” while they also see that child making some bad choices and perhaps even going off the rails. But good parenting means holding our children in a way that both acknowledges their long-term possibilities and their current realities, knowing that the worst thing we could do is to try to force the outcome. Many of us know how to do that kind of “holding” in our private lives, so we have the capacity to do some of the same in our public lives.
The key, of course, is love. Love leads us to hold the tensions we experience as parents in a creative way. Of course, the kind of love we have for those close to us cannot be replicated in the public realm. But can a different form of love — love of the promise of the human spirit, love of the common good — lead us to hold political tensions creatively? I’m not sure, but I sure hope so, because a politics rooted in greed or hunger for power rather than love of the commonweal is a politics headed toward self-destruction.
I’d like to devote much of my remaining time and energy toward helping to make our public life more compassionate and more generative — and I know many, many people who share that vision and that desire.Comments
by Rose Aslan, guest contributor
Women hold an Egyptian flag with a sign that reads, “A Request from 80 million: Leave, Leave You Pharaoh.” (photo: Darkroom Productions/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, now the most famous square in the world, got its name after the revolution of 1919, when both Muslim and Christian Egyptians marched in the streets of Cairo to demand their freedom from the British. It didn’t officially receive its name until the revolution of 1952 that led to the fall of the Egyptian monarchy.
Aptly named, the Egyptian people freed themselves from Hosni Mubarak by standing their ground in Liberation Square. Yesterday, the news spread like wildfire throughout Egypt, and within seconds the entire world was celebrating the successful revolution and courage of the Egyptian people to free their country from Pharaoh. So, now what?
Now the hard work begins. The real revolution must start from inside Egyptians themselves. Here might be a good time to mention the oft-quoted Qur’anic verse:
“Truly, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (Quran 13:11)
Muslim scholars constantly quote this verse to drive the point home that our external circumstances cannot change unless we purify ourselves and live wholesome and moral lives. Egyptians have taken it upon themselves to change their political condition (all on their own, no thanks to America!), and they have heroically rid their country of an evil dictator. They now must act to rid their country of the many socio-economic problems that have plagued the country for decades. I hate to be a pessimist, but whoever takes over Egypt once elections take place will have a huge task at hand and will only succeed if Egyptians are able to maintain the enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation and responsibility that we have seen in the past two weeks in Tahrir Square.
Corruption is so rampant in Egypt that people think nothing of paying a bribe to the police to avoid receiving a moving violation or sneaking a few extra pounds to a government employee to move their paperwork a bit quicker. Bribes are part of daily life in Egypt, and, in most cases, you can’t get anything done without greasing someone else’s palm. People have forgotten how to follow the rules and have gotten so used to playing the game that they don’t know what the rules are. You would be at a loss to find someone who can tell you who has the right-of-way at a stop sign (since they don’t stop at them anyway!); the only rule in driving in Cairo is there are no rules.
Ministers and other cronies of Mubarak have been pocketing the majority of Egypt’s wealth while many Egyptians scrape by on less than a dollar a day. Poverty and illiteracy are rampant throughout the country. According to UNICEF, the literacy rate in Egypt is only 72 percent, with women faring much worse than men. Forty-five percent of all women over the age of 15 are illiterate, and 85 percent of rural households run by women are illiterate.
The public school system is a mess, classrooms are overflowing, and teachers do a half-baked job teaching since they don’t make a living wage. They make their real income after school when they tutor the same students they see in the morning at their homes for excessive rates. The teachers have no other way to support their families and children need to pay for their lessons in order to pass exams that will determine their future.
Out of 18 million residents in greater Cairo, nearly a million souls — primarily migrant workers who came to the city looking for ways to support their family — inhabit al-Arafa, the "city of the dead" in Cairo. They hang their laundry from tombstones, and their homes lack running water and electricity. Cairo is overrun by other shantytowns, entire neighborhoods of unzoned residential neighborhoods that do not exist on the map, that lack basic infrastructure to support its burgeoning population.
The UNDP Human Development Index ranks Egypt 101 out of 177 countries: the gross national income per capita in 2008 is only $2,015, while 21.6 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line of $2 per day and more than 12 percent of children under than age of five suffer from malnutrition.
While there are reports of discrimination against religious minorities in Egypt, most ordinary Egyptians, no matter their religious identity, have little hope of social mobility if they are born into the wrong class. If you don’t have a wasta, someone with connections, you have little chance of finding a good job, even if you receive straight As in school and university. A successful college graduate without connections couldn’t hope for more than a low-paying and mindless job in a government office, that is, if they are lucky to get a job at all.
In the streets, women of all ages and religious preferences are constantly harassed, including those who wear the face veil. Men, both young and old, seem to think it is their God-given right to grope women’s bodies and make explicit gestures and cat-calls at them. It’s gotten so bad that a group of internet-savvy young people got together and designed an interactive map to collect data on the rate of sexual harassment in the country. People think nothing of throwing their wrappers on the sidewalk or out of the bus window. While they keep their homes immaculate, the streets of Cairo and other cities are filthy.
We have seen a glimpse of Egypt’s potential at Tahrir Square. People have been treating each other with kindness and respect, reclaiming the dignity that the regime has stolen from them. Men and women from all socio-economic backgrounds organized clean-ups to keep the area tidy, set up mobile clinics to care for the injured and sick, passed around food, and made new friends. Women were able to move freely through the crowds without being harassed. Christians and Muslims held hands and prayed together. In the early morning after Mubarak’s resignation, the youth swiftly organized groups to begin a clean-up of the entire downtown area where the protests took place. Now that’s inspiring, how many revolutionaries have you seen doing that?
Egyptians are resilient and courageous, and they could bring their beloved country to a new standard if they manage to keep up the momentum of change. Today, let’s celebrate a huge milestone in Egyptian history, but then let us prepare ourselves for the long process that lies ahead.
About the bottom image: Volunteers clean one of the iconic lion statues at the Qasr el-Nil bridge leading to Tahrir Square on February 12, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Rose Aslan is a doctoral student in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lived for more than five years in Egypt and received her MA in Arabic Studies from the American University in Cairo.
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