Monday, January 07, 2013

Phil Paine reflects on Iceland and democracy, 1

An excerpt:
But, to begin with, I’ll call up the mem­ory of my ear­li­est expe­ri­ence of democracy.

When I was a small child, in North­ern Ontario, there was a game played by the local chil­dren. It was a com­pli­cated ver­sion of “hide-and-go-seek”. Two teams of chil­dren would form up, one of which would leave a cen­tral gath­er­ing point on a com­pli­cated trail, and select a hid­ing place, leav­ing team mem­bers at strate­gic points, also hid­den. One of their num­ber would then return to the cen­tral point, meet­ing up with the other team. He or she (while the game mostly appealed to boys, girls were not excluded) would then draw a map on the ground, hon­estly rep­re­sent­ing the hiders’ route to their points of con­ceal­ment, but omit­ting the cru­cial infor­ma­tion of com­pass direc­tion. With this par­tial infor­ma­tion, the other team would set out in search, under the direc­tion of a leader. The the leader of the hid­ing team would accom­pany the search­ing team. He or she would shout out coded words and phrases, which had been agreed upon by his or her team mates. These would con­vey infor­ma­tion such as “the searchers are near but headed away from you” or “they are search­ing too far to the south of you”, etc. Some of the sig­nals were mean­ing­less, meant to mis­lead or con­fuse the searchers. The search­ing team also made use of coded sig­nals to co-ordinate their search. One sig­nal, how­ever, was cru­cial, as it would trig­ger a mad scram­ble to reach the map and erase it. This was com­pli­cated by the abil­ity of any scout to tag another, mak­ing him “freeze” on the spot, and the abil­ity of any other scout to “unfreeze” the frozen ones. Nei­ther team knew who was leader of the other team, since each had been selected after they had sep­a­rated. Each team made use of var­i­ous ruses, with scouts and lead­ers act­ing in var­i­ous ways to con­fuse their oppo­site num­bers.

It was an amaz­ingly com­plex game for small chil­dren to play. I don’t know if it is still played. Later, as an adult, inves­ti­ga­tion led me to con­clude that the game was of Native Cana­dian ori­gin. This came as no sur­prise to me, as its ele­ments are par­tic­u­larly suited to the Cana­dian phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment and to its Native cul­tural envi­ron­ment. The hunt­ing and track­ing ele­ment, and the reliance on grasp­ing the “high view” of a land­scape are both significant.

But what is rel­e­vant here is that the game was as much a train­ing for democ­racy as it was for hunt­ing and track­ing. Each stage of the game was char­ac­ter­ized by a for­mal elec­toral process. Each team leader was elected by major­ity vote in each cycle of the game, and no leader could serve more than one con­sec­u­tive “term”. Nom­i­na­tion and vot­ing were car­ried out by spe­cific pro­ce­dures which, in later life, as a his­to­rian, I found doc­u­mented among Native and Métis peo­ples in the Cana­dian north. It was to no team’s advan­tage to keep choos­ing the same peo­ple for the same tasks — the pat­tern would soon be use­ful to the oppo­si­tion. But at the same time, a com­pe­tent or expe­ri­enced per­son was the opti­mal choice. Wildly com­pet­i­tive as the game was, it was also char­ac­ter­ized by a con­sis­tent demand for fair­ness and equity. It is sig­nif­i­cant that nobody doubted that the map drawn in the ground would be an hon­est representation. 

I grew up with this game as part of my men­tal fur­ni­ture, and it came as a sur­prise to me when I found whole pop­u­la­tions of peo­ple who had no child­hood expe­ri­ence with any kind of demo­c­ra­tic com­po­nent. Their child­hoods, I came to real­ize, were dom­i­nated by the expe­ri­ence of tyranny: par­ents lay­ing down the law at home; teach­ers lay­ing down the law in school; bul­lies lay­ing down the law every­where else. It is no won­der that many peo­ple have great dif­fi­culty deal­ing with the con­cept of democ­racy. It is no won­der that many peo­ple today can­not imag­ine democ­racy as any­thing more than some incom­pre­hen­si­ble riga­ma­role pre­ced­ing the appoint­ment of a tyrant, who will then tell them what to do.

More on Phil's blog and more to come.

Image:  the old meeting site  of  Iceland's thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment