Defending Democracy

 

Watching the British parliamentary debate last night was a painful experience. The political class has proven to be a group asking and answering its own questions, loyal to its own ideology, pushing the societal divide even further. The televised mockery, wave of insults and well-rehearsed propaganda made parents sent their children to bed early. Many would like to forget what has just happened and, maybe, if possible, to erase the whole chapter from history books. Politicians says ‘they are tired’, referring to the general public watching the live broadcast.

There has been much discussion about the fact that ‘people’ are tired of this Brexit issue, and want it resolved. We are led into believing that we are all tired, and that the public irascibility is caused by the unresolved crisis launched by the Brexit referendum. It is worth remembering that the ‘people’ have not, in fact, created this crisis. In 2016, most people minding their own lives and jobs have been made aware of the referendum by politics. This ‘need’ was man-made, the present democratic crisis was politically manufactured.

For this reason, I am not tired to go back to history books and to dig out examples when freedom of speech and social institutions have been silenced by unelected leaders. Yesterday’s proroguing of Parliament has a great significance, as it creates a historic precedent by limiting the actions of an institution created to question the governmental decisions. In this context, I wonder who is governing the Government now?

I become increasingly more aware that our legacy is defined by the fact that we have taken the democratic values and institutions for granted. Democracy does not defend itself. Democracy can be safeguarded by people keeping a close eye on those governing, and by being involved in all the decisional processes. Democracy can be defended when people’s values and principles are clear and functioning. When people are willing to easily give up these values and principles, we face political tragedy.

© Maria Stadnicka, September 2019.

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The Burden of an Exit Strategy

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The confusing scandal around Cambridge Analytica and the misuse of personal data have stirred a wide search for a coping strategy post Facebook, once the campaign #Delete started to gather momentum. Over fifty million people have become victims of an algorithm and the finger points in both directions. It points at the corporation and the guilty pact between the rich and the political class to maintain ‘the distribution of wealth’ (Chomsky). And it points at the victims too, as they gave into temptation and filled in the vilified personality test, the intelligence test, the ‘what Disney character are you’ test or ‘is the dress white or gold’ test. And the list could include other hundreds of tests and surveys which were strategically used to collect data and profile the population.

But why did people take the online tests in the first place? Was it out of curiosity, boredom, self-absorption, confusion, insecurity? Possibly, but not exhaustively, being constantly overfed information, the individual, the person behind the computer screen, started to lose the sense of identity and the fear of rejection kept on creeping in. A sign of an increasing collective anxiety.

The need for constant external validation could be a symptom of what de Botton calls ‘status anxiety’. But this is not, by far, a new philosophical discovery. In 1929, Bernays used collective anxiety in his campaign ‘Torches of Freedom’ and successfully convinced women to start smoking cigarettes. One can only see that psychological profiling started a long time ago, when Sigmund Freud clarified the notion of a dark, unconscious self. It comes as no surprise now that among my friends without online social presence there is a sense of ‘told you so’ vindication, whilst the rest is struggling to find a way out.

On a tweet published yesterday by a friend I read a stark and final confession: ‘took a while to decide, but happy I finally cleansed myself. After 11 years I am off…forever.’ But have they actually managed to escape with such ease? Is ‘deleting’ as simple as ‘liking’ or ‘accepting’ the terms and conditions of a virtual contract? There are two immediate identifiable issues here.

The first is that the Facebook license does not end upon the deactivation of your account. The content will only be released from license when all the other users (family, friends, acquaintances, nobodies) have also broken their ties with it. Online freedom will come only after successful negotiations with thousands of friends one gathered during a decade of social media use. The second issue is that Twitter, the online space the online user migrated towards, has a more insidious ‘rights’ clauses. In accepting the terms and conditions, they granted the platform editing rights. Which means the right to edit, modify, translate and format any content posted on the platform. And this can be highly problematic when the content is translated to other languages.

The society’s architecture has dramatically changed to redefine the concept of freedom within the limits of an acceptable platform. It is now symptomatic that ‘deleting’ is a form of virtual social rejection, which leads to real constrains in terms of access to information. But, a while ago, this free access used to be a fundamental attribute of a healthy democracy.

‘The concept of liberty and individual choice are nothing but a mirage’ notes an online user on Twitter who admits that ‘today, Facebook deleted my account because I did use the title DeleteFacebook in one of my paintings’ (TArt). The elite culture is openly biting back displaying the fangs of bigotry ‘as it pretends there is no other alternative’ (Berger).
What facets do we need to explore now in order to redesign our ‘spectre of hope’?

Maria Stadnicka, 1st April 2018

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A City Preview – London on Thursdays

Poetry reading: Maria Stadnicka reading the poem City from the collection Imperfect published by Yew Tree Press, 2017. Poem published in International Times, January 2017.

Music: Katie McCue

Video footage: World War One Archive