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The death of democracy as we know it?

Rarely do I post about other things than history, but for once I’m going to go a bit political on you. Bear with me – and if you don’t, welcome back in 2017 when one of my first posts will be about a medieval Spanish king and his passionate love for a woman who probably never existed. 

In the very distant past, the Ancient Greeks pioneered an innovative approach to ruling their world. In the city state of Athens, all citizens (and we need not complicate things by discussing who were and who weren’t citizens) had an equal say in who should lead their city. Political campaigns were run to collect votes for this or that candidate, and on many issues the citizens voted directly – as is still done in the Swiss cantons.


Such democracy requires that a) the people with the right to vote exercise this right b) that the voters inform themselves as to the alternatives. It also requires an element of altruism, in that those that have need to recognise that in a democracy they might be required to share their wealth. After all, if you offer universal suffrage, somewhere along the line the impoverished voters will feel entitled to tax to their benefit, i.e. higher taxes on those that can afford it to pay for—as an example—public schooling. Which in turn leads to higher level of education, more wealth, more political interaction. Welcome to the welfare state, people!

If we’re going to be really, really drastic, we could argue that democracy in itself is a precursor to a milder form of socialism, creating a society in which the downtrodden can aspire to better lives than their parents, a society in which the gap between the minority very-very-rich and the majority not-at-all-rich is not quite as huge as it presently is in various democratic countries. Obviously, those who belong to the very-very-rich don’t always embrace this development. Therefore, the very-very-rich (and the closely related “establishment”) don’t always have a vested interest in pushing people to exercise their voting rights—rather the reverse, actually. And seeing as the poor and weak are often too poor and weak to fight for their own rights, you end up in situations where a substantial minority of all voters don’t vote. It’s too much of an effort to register, it takes too much time, thereby denting income.

Once the voter has claimed the right to exercise the right to vote, it is time to inform oneself. I imagine in Ancient Athens this was a question of going to debates, of listening and asking questions of the various candidates. In our modern democratic world, information was until recently gathered through reading newspapers. These days, many people have neither the time nor the inclination to read lengthy articles debating various sides of complex issues. No, today voters are happily misinformed by going for the simplified social media versions—of everything.

The problem with such information is that it is rarely complete. Or true. From the perspective of a future democratic world, 2016 has not been a good year. It is a year in which flagrant untruths have been blatantly used to garner votes – and even worse, the voters have swallowed these falsehoods. Why? Because they haven’t done their homework – or they don’t care. They have allowed themselves to be misinformed and are thereby not taking their duties as voters seriously.

Take, for example, the debate preceding Brexit in the UK. Those who represented the leave side happily spouted lie after lie – starting with the huge lie re how much money they were going to channel to the NHS (The UK National Health System) once the UK was freed of the chains of slavery binding it to the EU. When people objected to these lies, they were waved off as “experts” – and who on earth wanted to listen to an expert? Er…

It is symptomatic of just how uninformed the UK voters were that on the day AFTER the election – i.e. when it was already too late – the single most googled term in the UK was “what is the European Union”? Bravo, dear voters: you really did your homework, didn’t you?

Whether or not leaving the EU will be good or bad for the UK remains to be seen. And maybe the result would have been the same even if the voters had read up on the facts beforehand. What worries me is how the debate was run, just how blatantly some of the so-called leaders lied – and how gullibly the voters sucked it all up. If voters can’t be bothered to truly inform themselves about something as important as leaving a union which has as its prime purpose to safeguard peace and democracy in Europe, it doesn’t bode well for the future. If voters decide to ignore the “experts” in favour of the populists, then the voters are not living up to their side of the bargain, which is to exercise their vote AFTER they’ve informed themselves. Not the other way around.

After Brexit came the presidential election in the US. Yet another example of one lie atop another, with one of the candidates making sweeping (and untrue) statements about everything from crime rates among immigrants to President Obama’s citizenship. One long, endless string of lies, and most of them were easy to fact-check—but the voters chose not to. Instead, the voters elected Mr Trump, who had he been a wooden doll would have had a nose long enough to scratch at the moon.

In both the Brexit election and the US Presidential election, truth was clearly unimportant. People, it seemed, didn’t care about the lies. Some of these lies went on to become “truths” simply by being repeated so often. Some UK citizens seemed to truly believe the EU ran their country. It doesn’t. The UK is governed by its government and its Parliament. Always has been. In Mr Trump’s case, it became a truth that 17 million illegal immigrants had to be deported, seeing as they were more or less single-handedly responsible for crime in the US. Er…It was also a truth that Ms Clinton was going to jail should Mr Trump win. Er…Plus, of course, it is a “truth” that Mr Trump won an unprecedented victory. He didn’t. Ms Clinton won the popular vote with close to 3 million votes.

Even worse, both the US election and the Brexit debate quickly degenerated into a “we vs them” discussion. “We” were the group presently being addressed – “them” all the others. “We” were the victims, “them” the perpetrators of everything from globalisation to increased violence. Often, “them” were Muslims. Or immigrants. Defining immigrants as “them” in a country like the US is preposterous, as ALL Americans, bar the Native Americans, are per definition immigrants. That is what has made the US into the strong, vibrant country it is. Embracing diversity is what makes a country great, people. And yes, welcoming immigrants and refugees comes with huge challenges, but blaming them for everything that is wrong is not exactly the way to handle it, is it?

The truly worrying thing about the “we and them” debate is that it can be tailored infinitely. In one discussion, the “them” are Muslims – all of whom are potential terrorists and should therefore be deported back to where they came from, no matter that they were born and bred in Leicester. In another, “them” are the LGTBQ community – after all, they’re not like the wholesome heterosexual “we” are they? Next step, “them” are the immoral little sluts who opt for an abortion rather than giving birth to an unwanted child. Scary stuff, people, especially when the voters no longer bother about informing themselves, thereby taking the statements made about “them” at face value.

So how could populists like Mr Farage, Mr Johnson and Mr Trump carry the day? Have voters become lazy? Stupid? Don’t they care about democracy anymore?

A democracy only works if it is built on an element of trust. I elect you to represent me and my interests – and if you don’t do that, I’ll not elect you next time. However, over time people have lost faith in their representatives – nor does there seem to be much difference between one party or the other. Which is why, I assume, only 50% of the US voters bother to vote.

In the US, Mr Trump picked up considerable votes among the white, formerly middle-class, voters who have seen their relative wealth eroded over the last few years and had little reason to believe the “establishment” would do anything to help them. After all, the establishment rarely does. Ironically, Mr Trump is a member of the privileged elite which rarely shows any inclination to share, so I’m not exactly holding my breath…

Maybe 2016 should be a wake-up call to all those who profess to believe in democracy – despite its inherent weaknesses. Maybe it is time to face up to the fact that in the perception of the voters, the politicians no longer serve the voters’ interests: they serve their own. Fertile ground for populists who exploit the disgruntled…


Maybe it is time to remember that our forebears fought for the right to vote. To them, the principle of governing themselves was so important they were willing to risk imprisonment—even death—to defend it. In non-democratic countries throughout the world, people still fight for their right to make their voice heard, but we, the blasé citizens of the western world, we can’t really be bothered, can we? After all, being a responsible citizen in a democratic country requires more than surfing the internet and liking the odd post. Much, much more. Like getting off our backsides and going to vote – after we’ve informed ourselves. Mon Dieu, as the French would say. Let’s hope they say more than that next year, thereby relegating Marine le Pen and her non-inclusive, divisive politics to the margins of history.

“Trust me!” – a leap of faith

millais trust-me-1862

“Trust me” by Millais. But she doesn’t seem so inclined…

Trust is one of the more beautiful words in the English language. It is also a very fragile word. Just like respect, trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, and once broken, trust is difficult to repair.

To trust someone is to take a leap of faith. After all, you don’t know if the person you’ve chosen to trust will live up to your expectations – maybe your trust has been misplaced. But somehow, you make an assessment based on body language, voice, what the person says and how he/she acts. In some cases, it isn’t even a conscious decision – we just know (or think we do) that this is a person of integrity, someone who will never let us down. Many of us will suffer the disappointment of realising that the person who was so trustworthy in one situation will prove entirely unreliable when circumstances change. It is a painful insight: to have given your trust to someone and have it broken hurts.

Trust – or the breaking of trust – has played an important role throughout history. After all, deception is one of the older political instruments – instinctive, almost. Lull someone into believing in you and then, once they trust you implicitly, stab them in the back and destroy them. Very effective. Quite, quite immoral.

trust murder_julian_cesar_b“Of course, you can trust me. I love you as a father,” said Brutus to Caesar. Well, we all know how that ended.

“Trust me, my lord, my king,” said Dafydd ap Gruffydd, bending knee before Edward I. “I am your man.” But when it came to the crunch, Dafydd’s heart was with Wales and his brother Llewellyn – well, if we’re going to be quite correct with Wales and Dafydd – and so he betrayed his English overlord.
trust thumb_200__locationThumbEdward’s punishment was brutal. It is said Dafydd ap Gruffydd was the first nobleman ever to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Maybe it was the pain of broken trust that made Edward so vindictive.

“Of course I’ve forgiven you,” Swedish king Birger Magnusson said, arms wide open to embrace his two younger brothers. “Trust me, I am so happy to have you here with me for Christmas.” Some days later, the two young royal brothers were thrown into a cell and left to die of starvation. A righteous punishment in Birger’s opinion – his brother’s had betrayed his trust some years ago and taken him captive, obliging him to give up two thirds of his kingdom before they set him free.

trust DelarocheKingEdwardRichard, Duke of Gloucester, crouched before his nephew, the young Edward V, and smiled. “Trust me lad, I’ll not do you any harm.” But he did – if nothing else by appropriating the crown for himself. (No: I do not believe Richard killed his nephews) Of course, Richard himself was to pay the greatest price for misplaced trust, that day at Bosworth when the Earl of Northumberland held back his men and thereby allowed his king to be ignominiously killed.

“Trust me,” Pizarro said to Atahualpa. “Once your people have filled this building with gold we’ll let you go. You can go back to being the Inca, we will go back home.” Except that once the building was full of gold, Atahualpa was garrotted…

Trust me, that baby is not our brother, Princess Anne wrote to her sister, Mary. I bet they smuggled a foundling into the bedroom – probably crammed him into a warming pan. Whatever the case, I assure you that James Francis Edward Stuart is NOT our brother. Whether Mary believed her yes or no, it made for a convenient little lie. It also broke James II’s heart, that his elder daughters should be so cruel as to name his long-awaited precious son an impostor. As we all know, James II subsequently lost his throne to his eldest daughter. I don’t think he ever trusted her again.

Trust Miranda_en_la_Carraca_by_Arturo_Michelena

Miranda, awaiting death

The impassioned liberator of South America, Simón Bolívar was not above dirty tricks. In this case, it was a matter of ridding himself of competition. Francisco de Miranda was arguably the most famous Venezuelan alive – albeit that Venezuela did not exist – in the decades round 1800. He’d fought in the French revolution, had relentlessly demanded that Spain abandon its colonies in the New World. When present-day Venezuela freed itself – temporarily – from the Spanish yoke in 1810, Miranda returned, triumphant. Spain fought back. The fledgling republic was defeated.
“Trust me,” Bolívar said to Francisco de Miranda, before arresting him and handing him over to the Spanish. In return, Bolívar got a passport and fled to Curacao, Miranda was carried back to Cádiz, where he died in jail. Bolívar, of course, returned to defeat the Spanish.

trust Le_baiser_de_Judas_Heures_Charles_d'Angoulême_XVeAnd then of course, we have the ultimate breaking of trust – at least in the Christian world.
“Trust me,” said Judas Iscariot, widening his eyes. “Trust me Master, I would never betray you.” And yet he did, pressing the soft kiss to Jesus’ cheek that would lead to his trial and crucifixion. For his troubles, Judas received 30 silver coins – and a burden of guilt so heavy he hanged himself.

After all these examples, one wonders that there are still people around who do trust their fellow human beings. And that there are those who fully deserve that trust. But then, some people never break their word, do they? Kudos to them.

Some people would argue that there are times when expediency – or the greater good – call for some deception so as to move things forward. In such cases, the breach of trust becomes collateral damage, the price to pay for having sorted a situation that had all the signs of going from bad to worse. For an honourable man, the resulting guilt can be quite crushing. Take, for example, Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. A loyal servant of the crown, a man trusted implicitly by the king – and his fellow barons – Aymer was given custody of Piers Gaveston after the barons finally succeeded in convincing – erm, strong-arming or brow-beating – Edward II to give his favourite up.
“We can trust Aymer,” Edward said to Piers. “He’ll keep you safe.”

trust cbb9a28fe107ddfab0bbba82438f3d82And Aymer did, but some of the other disgruntled barons were less than happy – they wanted Gaveston dead. Therefore, when Aymer slipped off to visit his wife, his fellow rebel barons took the opportunity to kidnap Gaveston and summarily execute him. Aymer never forgave them for the stain to his honour. The king never forgave them for murdering his dearest Piers. Things see-sawed back and forth, and then in 1321 Mortimer rebelled – this time in protest against the king’s new favourites, the Despensers.

Aymer de Valence was despatched to talk some sense into the rebels. He also pledged his word that should Mortimer submit, they’d not be killed. Roger Mortimer believed him. Aymer de Valence probably belived himself. The king, however, had other plans, and once he had Mortimer kneeling at his feet, he had him clapped in chains and dragged off to await execution. Mortimer escaped his captivity and lived to fight another day. Aymer de Valence, however, never quite recovered from this new blow to his honour. Aymer was a man who believed in honour, in trust. Twice, his integrity had been compromised by others. I dare say Aymer never again trusted his king.

Leaving aside all these wonderful historical examples, the issue of who to trust and who not to trust is as relevant today as it ever was before. We need to trust. We want to trust. It is a prerequisite to feeling that we belong, that we are safe. But in a world where a lot of the interaction takes place virtually – we communicate more and more via e-mail and text, less and less face-to-face and by phone – our brains lack some of the ingredients required to make a truly informed decision. We do not see the facial expression of the guy writing the Nigeria letter promising us millions if we just give him access to our bank accounts (although to fall for that one is sheer stupidity. No one gives away millions for free. No one). Nor do we note – and evaluate – how the person trying to sell us the best laptop in the world at a bargain price is fidgeting in his/her seat. We have no opportunity to register how eye-contact is avoided – or exaggerated – we cannot quite assess the pitch of voice or see the telltale blush that afflict some people when they lie. So we take a leap of faith and trust anyway. Quite a few of us crash and burn as a consequence…

In the world of business, trust is a very precious commodity. And generally, if you’ve broken it once, you never get it back. Plus, the business world is as full of gossip as any other human environment, and soon enough the company or person who broke trust will realise the word is going round. “Don’t trust them, they’ll rob you blind any opportunity they get.” Difficult to overcome – even if it is untrue. After all, broken trust is just as much about perceptions and undelivered expectations as it is about facts.

trust Lucifer and the SinnersThere is an element of grief in a relationship where trust has gone down the drain, which is why most of us will try to repair things, hoping to find our way back to how things used to be. That rarely happens. In the case of poor Aymer and his king, I don’t think theirs was ever a cordial relationship again. Brutus, of course, never had the opportunity to mend the fences with Caesar – I somehow think his efforts would have been futile. Jesus, I am sure, forgave Judas. After all, what was Judas but an unwitting pawn? Us humans, however, have definitely not forgiven him which is why Judas Iscariot, burdened with shame and guilt, lives forever in the ninth circle of Hell – as does Brutus – or so Dante tells us.

Over the course of our lives, we will be fortunate enough to meet some people we can trust – and therefore love. Little gems to hang on to, to polish and nurture. I am fortunate in that I have a best friend who would go to Hell and back again for me – as I would for her. I have children I trust implicitly, a sister who is always there for me. And then, of course, there’s the person I trust the most, the person I gladly entrust with my dreams, my hopes, my soul and heart: my husband. Since we met, very many years ago, he has never once let me down. Never. Am I a lucky girl, or what? Trust me, I know I am!

May thy slumber be blessed

There’s a poem I particularly love that’s called Canción de Cuna (Lullaby) by Juan Ramón Jimenez, a Spanish poet.

No; dormida
no te beso.
Tú me has dado tu alma
con tus ojos abiertos
-o jardín estrellado-
a tu cuerpo.
No, dormida no eres
tú…No, no, no te beso!
…Infiel te fuera a ti si te besara
a ti …
No, no
no te beso.

No, while
you sleep I will not kiss you
You have given me your soul
with your eyes wide open
– oh, garden of stars –
to your body.
No, asleep you’re not
you …No, no, no, I will not kiss you!
…Unfaithful would I be to you if I were to
kiss you now …
No, no
no, I will not kiss you

The lover in this poem is watching his love as she sleeps (and struggling with his desire to kiss her). It’s strange, isn’t it, how intimate it is to actually sit beside someone sunk in dreams – which is probably why it is more momentous in some ways to spend the night with someone than to “just” have sex with them. A sleeping person lies revealed, the face softens, limbs fall this way and that, and in sleep we do not hold our tummy in or stretch our spine to look taller, slimmer, healthier than what we are. In sleep we revert to who we truly are – or were, as years of holding your spine erect (sucking your tummy in, tilting your face this way or that to hide the double chin … take your pick) makes this such an ingrained habit it becomes part of us. Those of us that make an effort to meet the world with a constant smile (many of us do) generally don’t smile while asleep, instead the mouth falls open, the features smoothen, and look, there might even be a trickle of something wet at the corner of the mouth.

I never sleep on planes – I have this idea that it is better to be awake should something happen (and isn’t it a miracle that only rarely do “things” happen to airplanes? I mean, tubes of thinnest aluminium criss-crossing the sky and most of the times we get unscathed from point A to point B). This tends to make my loved ones grin.
“What would it help?” my husband wonders.
“Well, at least I’d be awake.”
“And? Do you think it would up your chances of survival?”
“Umm…” (No, actually. Or maybe yes. Definitely yes. And I make sure I have my credit cards in my pocket to pay my way back home)
Back to the subject: I never sleep on planes, but the majority of the passengers on the late night flights do. Many of them will wake up with cricks in their necks, given their posture, some sleep with their head on the tray table, and then there’s the young, slim and agile, who somehow seem to be sleeping in ultimate comfort no matter hos constrained the space. Anyway, as I’m not asleep, and as I also have this thing about drinking litres of water while flying (Someone told me one should drink one litre per hour of flight. That must be wrong. Still, I do my best …) I do a lot of walking back and forth to the lavatory. In the middle of the night it’s like wandering through a nursery. Everywhere sleeping people, some on their backs, some curled like shrimps on their side. Here and there someone is snoring, total strangers lie back to back with scant inches between them, and sometimes heads will be pillowed on the accomodating shoulder of the person occupying the neighbouring seat. We would never allow such proximity if we were awake, would we?

All these sleeping people look very vulnerable. Mouths are  slack and soft, heads are tilted back to expose throats, and hands lie open and relaxed on chests, thighs, armrests. (Not mine; they clench firmly round the armrest. Not much of a flying fan.) Humanity is at its best asleep. Strife is no more, petty squabbles don’t exist, and side by side are people of different gender, nationalities, race and creed – people who would never cross each others path in their day-to- day life, let alone sleep beside each other. Apart from the weak light from the galley and the shadowy shape of the distant flight attendant it is only me and all these sleeping people, for now free of cares and burdens, for now trusting that others will see them safe through the night. I have to repress an urge to go tucking them all in …

Sleeping people are beautiful people, no matter if they’re old or young, fat or skinny. I think it’s the peace and openness  in their faces, the faint glow that stands around them – as if their souls were peeking through the skin and bone. For an instant there, I can discern the glimmer of divinity than lives in each and every one of us, and it makes me smile to myself while thinking that maybe there is hope for us, for our children and the planet we live on. We’re not bad sorts, us humans, it’s just that we wander somewhat overwhelmed by the hectic lives we lead. But when we sleep, we dream, reverting to the innocence and faith of youth. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the world, maybe all it takes to build a Brave New World is a couple of hours more of undisturbed sleep. I wish …

It seems apt to end this post by wishing you goodnight. May your sleep be restful, your dreams full of hope and light. As that old lullaby goes, “lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed.” God knows you need it – all of us do!

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