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!”

(snip)

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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Comments

  1. baal says

    I didn’t think that occupy was that big a deal from the front end (aside from a general glee that protests were happening – kind of wondered why there aren’t more). But then the police hopped up to paramilitary status and failed European communistic country levels of brutality and almost all local government levels passed ordinances one after the other to limit the 1st Amendment Right of Assembly.

  2. says

    Here we go again…

    Let’s compare, shall we?

    Tea Party: Organized almost instantly after a black man had the audacity to be elected President. Tapping into fear and bigotry (still great players in US politics) of old white people who were easily led to vote as a block. Resulted in election of local anti-tax Republicans, took over Statehouses (resulting in gerrymandering of Congressional districts), took over a fairly hefty minority of the US House, and a small number of US Senate Seats.

    Occupy: Camped out. Mainly in places where the object of their ire could not see them.

    If you want to effect change, you cannot do it by sitting outside the halls of power. You need to occupy the halls of power. Legally. By running progressive candidates for office. By fighting the anti-science, anti-women, white supremacist Christian Dominionists at every turn.

    By using the political process. Not by camping out.

  3. Rodney Nelson says

    And within five months, they had hacked Android.

    I am impressed and encouraged by this. Hooray for the kids!

  4. nohellbelowus says

    By using the political process. Not by camping out.

    False dichotomy.

    Both avenues are open, and both should be used.

  5. Brad says

    One of those avenues has proven to be much more effective, Bachman and Ryan are still congresstaints.

  6. says

    Tea Party: Organized almost instantly after a black man had the audacity to be elected President.

    The Tea Party fronts itself as a grassroots organizatio, but it’s not. It’s a wholly owned subsidiary of a handful of plutocrats and built on the scaffolding of the religious right, a group that already had massive organizational structure. Occupy wasn’t that. In fact, when the unions tried to ingratiate themselves and give Occupy the opportunity to use union infrstructure, they intentionally said ‘no’.

    The two organizations are not comparable. Occupy is a lemonade stand on the corner. The Tea Party is InBev.

  7. nohellbelowus says

    I agree, but some people can’t read or write. Let them camp out, instead.

    From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.

  8. left0ver1under says

    It’s not the first time this was tried, putting computers out without instructions where kids are. The results were the same then.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1502820.stm

    —–

    Question: Which would serve the third world better, sports cars or cheap but tough and long-lasting bicycles?

    http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2010/0510/creative-giving-sram-zambia-charity-armstrong-bicycle-economy.html

    The first attempt at OLPC was a failure because the goals were wrong. They were trying to include the latest technology and software instead of building computers with older and cheaper technology that would be good enough. Negroponte was trying to build computers for himself, not for the third world.

  9. Martha says

    Kevin, you do Occupy a disservice, and not just for the reasons Crommunist suggested. He’s certainly right about there being plenty of astroturf in the field of the Tea Party.

    Before Occupy, hardly anyone in the United States talked about income inequality, except for a few economics professors and some epidemiologists from the UK. I wouldn’t yet say that there is the right level of public discussion about how we got ourselves into the mess of a new Gilded Age, but politicians have started to notice that there are a lot of people who aren’t getting a fair shake, and they ignore them at their peril. I credit Occupy with bringing these issues to the national consciousness. Yes, it will also take organization to beat the moneyed interests, but and I hope Occupy will continue to hold President Obama’s feet to the fire about economic injustice.

  10. says

    From total illiteracy to hacking a goddamn OS in five months—without any outside instruction/assistance?
    Yes. In fact, Oh hell yes.
    I want to spam this story to every racist clown who makes noise about how black people just aren’t as good as white people…

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