A truly remarkable election, a truly remarkable story

So there was an election last night. Maybe you heard about it. I decided to take on a bottle of scotch and let the election results decide whether I was drinking in triumph or in bitter defeat. At it turned out, the lesser of two evils prevailed, which is good news for America and the rest of the world.

There was sincerely, non-cynically good news last night too, as Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Duckworth, and Tammy Baldwin all won elections against opponents who represented the ugliest aspects of the body politic. Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin and Richard “god’s will” Mourdock lost their races as well, as did Allen West and Joe Walsh. This is all suggestive of an America that is happy taking a step back from the precipice of insanity that is the once-fringe-now-mainstream of the Republican party. There are a lot of ugly things that happened around this election as well, but we can talk about those next week. Events have once again conspired to rob me of blogging time, but I do want to highlight an important thought.

Elections are viewed through a lens of Hollywood-style horse race struggles between two opposing ideas, where one side “wins” and the other side “loses”. The fact is that this election is, at least at an aggregate level, a preservation of the status quo of Washington politics. It is no exaggeration to point out how deeply corporatized both parties are, and we don’t have to look too far to see a laundry list of things that went almost entirely undiscussed in this election: secret and illegal wars, climate change, domestic spying, curtailment of civil liberties, housing, affirmative action programs, increasing economic inequality, deepening poverty, and the disproportionate effect the economic crisis has had and continues to have on Americans of colour are just a few examples that jump off the top of my head.

The Occupy movement was, I still maintain, an attempt to answer a fundamental existential question: do political elites rule with the consent of the governed? Related to this question is: what role does the average person play in the day-to-day operation of hir society? Are we merely ‘voters’ to be coddled and pandered to when a show of democracy is required, or are we active participants in a social experiment? Are elections the only things that matter? Do the two party platforms represent the full range of options? Does a vote for equal marriage rights necessarily cleave to a vote for CIA drone strikes in Yemen, or are there legitimate options left unconsidered by either party?

Occupy may not be the correct way to ask and answer this question (I believe it is, but that’s a personal opinion, not a proscriptive statement), but it is one that desperately needs answering, even in the face of a second Obama term. As I tweeted yesterday, elections have consequences but more so does our inactivity between them. Democracy is about more than voting, it’s about more than donating to or volunteering for a campaign – democracy is about political power being wielded by the people, not merely their appointed representatives. Our failure to remain engaged in our political framework means that the ability to exercise power will go to the most nakedly avaricious, with fewer repercussions for its abuse or subversion. We need to stay active, because there are serious problems that even a president as remarkable as Barack Obama will ignore or even exacerbate if not held to a high standard by the people from whom his power is drawn.

And while the task is daunting, this story helps to remind me that human beings are capable of amazing things:

The One Laptop Per Child project started as a way of delivering technology and resources to schools in countries with little or no education infrastructure, using inexpensive computers to improve traditional curricula. What the OLPC Project has realized over the last five or six years, though, is that teaching kids stuff is really not that valuable. Yes, knowing all your state capitols how to spell “neighborhood” properly and whatnot isn’t a bad thing, but memorizing facts and procedures isn’t going to inspire kids to go out and learn by teaching themselves, which is the key to a good education. Instead, OLPC is trying to figure out a way to teach kids to learn, which is what this experiment is all about.

Rather than give out laptops (they’re actually Motorola Zoom tablets plus solar chargers running custom software) to kids in schools with teachers, the OLPC Project decided to try something completely different: it delivered some boxes of tablets to two villages in Ethiopia, taped shut, with no instructions whatsoever. Just like, “hey kids, here’s this box, you can open it if you want, see ya!”


Here’s how it went down, as related by OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference last week:

“We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”

Read the whole story. It’s incredible how quickly these kids learned not only to read, but to innovate and experiment will outside the expected parameters of the experiment.

But the larger point  is this: we’re artificially constrained to think of democracy in very dichotomous terms. There are a whole range of options available to us, solutions that neither party will think of or entertain as plausible. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are just two philosophies of governance, just as Canada’s Liberal, New Democratic, and Republican North Parties are simply reflections of different conclusions drawn from some shared assumptions about what ‘government’ is. There is ample room for us to innovate, to experiment, to make our presence known, and to think outside of the boxes that we’re born into. The power is ours to use, and we can do so much more than just elect someone else to wield it.

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