One reason Politics and Prose is a neighborhood treasure is because of its classes… and the people you meet there.
This spring I enrolled in a class on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. There I met a neighbor who is concerned about the future of democracy in the U.S., in his home country and worldwide. And his work involves encouraging us to think deeply and critically about what democracy means and its value.
Who are you, what is your organization and how did you land in DC?
My name is Ashok Panikkar and I founded Meta-Culture (meta-culture.in) as a conflict management and critical thinking center in 2005. After working in Boston for 10 years and Bangalore, India for 12, I realized that I could not, in good conscience, continue my life as a consultant with liberal democracy crumbling in front of my eyes. Even with the reasonably good work that I was doing it suddenly felt like I was fiddling while Rome burns.
I left India and moved to DC in January 2017 because of a lovely woman, Stacey, and because I believe that the West is the last bastion of open societies. If we don’t hold the fort here, these open and free societies will pretty much disappear for a generation, if not more. I came to DC because Stacey wanted to find work in international development, and it is as good a place as any to try and work on saving democracy.
This seems as good a time as any to explain that Ashok also uses art in his work. And it’s on display through Sunday, June 2nd at Lapop in Adams Morgan.
What led you to create Inconvenient Questions and Unreasonable Poster exhibition?
I traveled around the northeast intermittently for around 18 months, trying to engage people in complex discussions around the crisis of democracy. I ran workshops, gave talks and conducted facilitated dialogues (all told around 30 to 35 sessions). However, two things happened:
1) I found people resistant to anything other than bashing their opponents (be it this administration, conservatives, Republicans, men, women, white folk, immigrants or the police). Few seemed to have any appetite for reflection or critical thinking.
2) Without any institutional support or funding, I ran out of steam and saw that, even as I was out there doing all this, the climate was getting even more vitiated. Folks were fighting over getting MORE RIGHTS for themselves, even as we were destroying the very political system that gave us the most comprehensive set of rights ever available to human beings.
Given my fear of despotic societies and sensitivity to democratic vulnerabilities, almost in desperation, I resorted to the poster equivalent of yelling “Fire” or the “Barbarians are coming.” I never thought I would go back to design again. The last time I held an exhibition was in April 1998. But this seemed to be the time for some visual awakening. You can see some of my work on democracy here: metaculture.studio.
— Meta-Culture (@MetaCulture2) May 6, 2019
Has being from a different culture been an advantage in looking at our democracy?
I never thought it would have been an advantage. However, with hindsight, I now realize that growing up in India I was able to learn early on how vulnerable democracy was. Also visiting the UAE and Kuwait every year from the ages of 13 to 25 and the loss of Indian democracy when I was in college for a couple of years (during Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s “emergency”) taught me what it would mean to live in a non-democratic society.
Americans have had the luxury and the tragedy of taking their democracy for granted. Outside the Western world that was not given to us, so we are even more appreciative of it and possibly excruciatingly aware of its tenuousness and vulnerabilities. Having said that, most folks, even in India, it was easy to become complacent, as many of my friends were. Having had to fight for and pay a price for all my own personal freedoms, I was probably particularly sensitive to their tenuousness.
Given the Civil War, Andrew Jackson, Prohibition, and 60’s upheaval, aren’t these times just “normal” bumps along the way in making our society more inclusive?
It is tempting to see these as “normal” bumps. However, what that doesn’t take into consideration is that this time around there is a perfect storm brewing. If you look at the ecological, economic, technological and cultural headwinds, there is no way that our slow and inefficient adversarial electoral political system can withstand it.
All the other situations you mention were difficult moments for the US, however the nation still had a lot going for it – unlimited land; few foreign enemies that could genuinely threaten the nation; and as for the so called “turbulent 60’s,” the USA was the undisputed superpower. Its many generals – GM, GE, General Foods and General Dynamics – sold whatever they produced globally without much competition. Imagine, the richest and most powerful country in the world, strong labor force and highest standards of living – their elite could afford to concede much to the protesters, politically and culturally, without losing dominance. The pie is much smaller now and the dominant white male population is not just worried about supremacy, they are worried about their survival. This time the revolution will not be set to John Lennon, LSD or swaying hippies.
What do you see as the Achilles’ heel of democracy? Is it fixable?
The problem with democracy today is manifold. But if I had to isolate an Achilles’ heel, I would pick the quality of the citizenry. We cannot have a citizenry that functions with the entitlement or detachment of subjects, consumers or spectators. Democracy is a serious contact sport involving everyone – all the time. Unfortunately, we have gotten used to the idea that, having delegated our decisions to elected representatives, we need to only show up again at election time – or if we are really pissed off, on protest marches.
Democracy requires a civic culture that is informed by hard earned and even difficult virtues and dispositions such as generosity, patience, caring for neighbors and robust reasoning). Finally, democracy lives or dies by the maturity of the citizenry. We cannot blame our leaders and institutions beyond a point, that is the beauty and the ugly truth of democracy. If our democracy is a mess, well, each one of us is, in some way, culpable.
Does the invasion of digital and telecommunication technology in our lives make it worse or better for our engaging in a democratic society.
What technology did was to make it possible for those without a voice (including whistleblowers) to be heard. It also allowed people to connect with similarly minded folks across the globe. Having said that the net impact of digital technology has been to shake the very foundations of democracy. Deep focus, attention, critical thinking, the ability to read books and a capacity to build face-to-face community and develop intimate relationships are not aided by our digital world. These were more likely to be an attribute of a pre-global, analogue world where strong communities provided a basis for a slower life with enough time to read, chat with neighbors on stoops and through that to contemplate, reflect and introspect. All of these virtues are at a premium now.
What is your prognosis for the future?
Not being an American and hence not weaned on a diet of positivity and eternal optimism, I would have to say, turbulent!
First the good news: The coming perfect storm is likely to seriously shake up our world – though only fools would predict how things might eventually shake out. One thing is certain. We will, at the very least, see long periods of social instability followed by political turbulence. If on top of that there is an economic collapse (however short term), it would be catastrophic.
So much for the good news, now the bad: The worst-case scenario is that all of the above, are exacerbated by large scale ecological devastation caused by climate change. Try not to think of hundreds of millions of climate refugees converging on countries that are in the midst of a civil war. Complete ecological, economic political and social collapse.
But you have offered a venue to discuss issues facing our country and democracy. This must come out of some sense of hope and optimism. What do you want to accomplish?
Personally, I find optimism and hope to be distractions. Older societies appreciated the idea of responsibility and duty in a way that we, in the 21st century, often don’t. In any case, when in an existential crisis, it is incumbent upon us to do everything that we can, regardless of the chances of success.
Today’s global crisis of democracy cannot be overcome merely by changing the administration, packing the courts with liberal judges, or through legislation alone. This is also a crisis of citizenship, the collapse of community and critical thinking. What I am doing today is providing citizens with the opportunity to think, deliberate and introspect – together. This is by no means enough, but is necessary to help create cohesion and build community, something that cannot be done by doubling down into our comfortable tribal bubbles.