“A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself”
Franklin Deleno Roosevelt
Hello from Washington DC, the palpitating heart of democracy! So, these might not look like the best of times but they are, despite everything, still much better than they could have been or, indeed, could be. We must never underestimate the human genius for wrenching utter and complete destruction from what might be mere momentary setbacks.
My apologies for the long silence and my less than optimistic tone. Not being American I am not constitutionally required to either pursue happiness or be, always and unremittingly, positive. Since January of this year, both Meta-Culture and I have been in transit. The distance from Bangalore to Washington DC is, as many immigrants before me have discovered, longer than the nautical or sky miles, the delays at immigration, or the wait for one’s working papers, and it is certainly way longer than the time that it takes to recover from jet lag.
The discomfort was expected- shutting down Meta-Culture’s Indian office after twelve years, the resulting (and terrifying) loss of income, and moving my suitcases and self, ten thousand miles away to create a new life- all over again.
The angst should have been expected but was not. Yes, I knew that I would miss the couple of thousand books that I left behind in storage, but it was not as much as I missed my colleagues and the support of a fabulous team in Bangalore. Raghav, Rachana, Usha, Ufra, Fayiqa, Mihika and Mike were only the most recent generation of passionate and intelligent people that Meta-Culture was fortunate enough to attract. Their freshness and idealism allowed me to survive the intellectual, material and atmospheric pollution around me and their openness to learning and experimentation helped us conjure up innovative ideas despite the prevailing complacency and cynicism. The best amongst my team became my psychic and technical extensions. Without them it would have been impossible to, as Rachana once put it, shaking her head in stupefaction, “create projects out of thin air”- without clients, funding or even any ostensible demand from the community, civil society or market.
Without this team, while I would still have been fretting about the state of international democracy in 2012- way before the rise of the right wing in Europe and India, Charlie Hebdo, Brexit, the 2016 US elections, or Erdogan’s giving up any pretense of democratic functioning- I might not have been able to do much about it.
Without them we couldn’t have initiated the Public Intelligence Project in 2013 to rediscover the method within the madness and chaos of democracy. Without them, Meta-Culture couldn’t have succeeded in bringing together orthodox and dogmatic Hindus and Muslims to the table starting in 2014 at multi-year Meta-Dialogues to audaciously challenge their deepest cultural assumptions and confront their own religious blind spots. We wouldn’t have been able to create Ah!Wake in 2014, an ambitious ‘boot camp for the thinking person’, to help create a critical thinking and compassionate citizenry, nor would we have been able to organize bi-monthly events like Socrates Last Stand, starting from 2015, creating opportunities for ordinary citizens to engage in meaningful and deep conversations. Lastly, we wouldn’t have been able to create from scratch a seven month long democratic skills workshop, the Alternative Future’s Project in 2016, to bring together ideologically competing leaders to collaboratively imagine what a collective future would look like.
The angst, as I said earlier, should have been expected but was not. It was mostly in my realization of how much this country has changed since I last lived here between 1995 and 2005. The America I knew, even in the aftermath of 9/11 was a far more creative, generous, hopeful and trusting place. Today much of the public and private discourse is built around insecurity, fear and anger. It is a place where, as economic inequalities have become obscene, even those from once seemingly dominant groups- the affluent, educated, male or white- feel insecure, victimized and weighed down by crippling pain and suffering. It has also become, for all its infamous Judeo-Christian guilt, a culture of shame- where relentless public shaming, rather than reason or argument, is seen as the most effective way of righting wrongs, framing policy, or destroying those perceived as enemies. It is a culture where evidence stands discredited, reason hides in the shadows, and the rawest emotions and stories of desperation, imagined and real, are deemed equally legitimate. It does sometimes seem, in my darkest moments, that we are all now trashing about in the swamp of our basest emotions while Reason, Understanding, Compassion and Truth itself have left the agora.
But perhaps not just yet. There are intelligent people who now realize that yesterday’s battles are as relevant today as squabbling with one’s sibling is, when faced with family bankruptcy or the possible demise of a parent. There are many who now realize that, in the light of the extraordinary threats to the liberal democratic order, without which all conversations about rights and freedoms are moot, our collective and primary responsibility is to protect our social and political system. We now know that the democratic system is extraordinarily fragile, as vulnerable to the rage that comes from discontent within as it is to machinations from without.
Our task is not just necessary, but urgent. Our own team’s contribution, to what is nothing less than a project for civilizational renewal, is Citizen Demos. Keep tuned.