The fallout from the G20 continues unabated. Because of on-going digging by responsible media, we can now identify several of the most brutal police who used force, not only unnecessarily and gratuitously but also – it seems – with seriously doubtful legality. More importantly, ideological connections have been made between the boots on the ground and the governing powers that be. Just after the G20 and continuing to the present moment, many – and ever more – voices are beginning to name the emerging corporate and state zeitgeist: fascism.
We look back with incredulity on the emergence of the Nazis and the Fascists in Italy and Spain. We shake our heads and wonder how could they not see the logical end of milestones of evident malfeasance. But faced with disturbing milestones in our own political unraveling we are loathed to label it – or to stop it because, in being reluctant to name it and refusing to recognized it, we can avoid an unequivical moral call to action – much as those earlier citizens looked the other way and carried on – until the sky fell on them as it surely will on us, and sooner rather than later.
How is it that this can be? The following discussion comes out of a concern for the deteriorating macro situation in our society – and from an example of some of these operational forces in a micro situation all the more startling, and personally concerning, because they occured in a congregation, the denomination of which descends from a proud history of social progressivism. Even where one would least expect it, the conditions for silencing mechanisms are deep-seeded and powerful – and if there, the problem is all but intractable. If we are to preserve and foster democracy, we need to understand, better than we now apparently do, the forces at work which persuade us to ignore what we know and then concede against our conscience. It is my hope that by examining the smaller situation, we can better understand the larger.
The Micro (as above so below)
Awhile ago our congregation held a “conversation” concerning the relationship between members and leaders, framed by the title:”trusting our leadership”. Some of us thought that, despite the late title attached to the long awaited conversation, it would be an opportunity to address difficulties we were having with the structure of governance in our congregation but, in this, we were sorely disappointed.
In our “conversation”, the format was structured in advance, so that we could not get at larger issues of governance: we had to work through pre-written questions which, in turn, rigidly structured the answers and severely limited the scope of those answers: what we had, then, was not conversation but an exercise in control – if not “damage control” then most certainly in rebellousness control, reigning in dissent. If our concerns about governing structures were acute prior to this, those concerns increased exponentially afterwards. Given the activist cast of many members, concerned with the state of democracy in the larger world, it was devastating to comprehend the state of democracy within our own smaller one. What has since ensued is a critcal look at that state of democracy, using the clues provided in both the structure of the “conversation” (control the possibilities of communication) and the contents.
If the format said something pertinent about qualifications imposed on democratic potential and ideal, the contents said even more. The questions turned out to be about our experiences with “trust”, weighted heavily toward those things which prevented us from “trusting”. In a profound sense, the exercise was about pressing us to turn ourselves over to a designated “leader” (leader by virtue of election or appointment) – and thereafter, not to rock the boat. For some of us, this felt like an uncomfortable assault on our sense of sovereignty, particularly what may be personal sovereignty’s most important component – conscience. The irony is that the covenant of our denomination specifically upholds the right of conscience as inviolable.
What was offensive was the way in which “trust” was pitted against actions of conscience – more about this later – since this conflict turns out to have historic precedents suggesting that even our denomination is still under the sway of claims of authority vested in leaders, as if in their election the will of god, in which we no longer believe, is manifest and ought to command obedience.
An alternative understanding of “leaders”, within a fully realized democratic comprehension, would be that they can never be more than an always provisional council doing the will of the congregation – which is what “democracy” in its representative form must admit to – if it is to embody the meaning of democracy at all. But this understanding of “democracy” has always been overshadowed (certainly in the macro larger world, and evidently here in the micro smaller too) by the qualifications imposed upon it, not only by a real politik but by this deeper call to obedience, using trust as the summons. If “doing the will of the congregation” were truly the core imperative of an attempt at democracy, then there would be feedback mechanisms (far more responsive than “the next election”) to allow that will to declare itself. Very clearly “the conversation” was not such a mechanism.
Both explicitly and implicitly, we were exhorted to support our leaders without demur (“I was only following orders”?), given the good will and dedication they would undoubtedly bring, had undoubtedly brought, to the task of governing our common life together: not only administrating but making decisions, policies and procedures which would facilitate or limit the scope of action in worship and in extra-liturgical endeavours.
I am sure that most of our “leaders” are persons of good will and dedication – but it may still be true that, just like in secular politics, once the ballot is cast, the government does what it considers best (with all that that may include in terms of vested interests) but not govern in critical matters in ways that some, most or all of the congregation would like (indeed, we have already had a concrete example of exactly that – a decision made that was contrary to the sentiments of a majority, based on an informal poll).
What is “Democracy”?
It is here that the devil is in the details of the representative form of democracy – perhaps democracy under the conditions of epidemological densities has been, until recently, an impossible ideal. The lack of an adequate feedback mechanism, mentioned above, leaves space for an unresolved dissonance between the will of governors and the will of the governed, not only in our own congregation, in our denomination – but also in the larger governing structures of our society and is consistently evident in the history of democratic attempts.
While it may be true that we had no technology which could provide for such a mechanism, that is not the entire story nor even its most salient point. The history of democracy betrays a constant distrust of popular sentiment – otherwise known as the people – the “demos” in democracy. This distrust is why “the franchise” has always, in one way or another, been constrained in those countries deriving their heritage from the “Western” trajectory and why democracy has, in those countries, moved rapidly from townhall direct to congressional representation.
There have been other societies, however, in which a consensus form of democracy has, instead, been practiced (at least in theory if not always in reality) in which the ideal was to arrive at a reconciled governance about which no one felt excluded and no faction dictated to another, however large or small those might be in relation to one another. Such a commitment to a fully realized democracy avoids what representation (without redress mechanisms) tends toward – for what begins under the auspices of representation moves inexorably toward fascism, as representatives move farther away from the people they have sworn to represent and into elite society of their own. Then the fun begins: how to manage the disappointed expectations of the governed. And it is here, precisely, that the issue of “trust” – what that means – surfaces to the fore of democratic cant.
Refering back to the smaller example to explicate the larger, given the explicit and implicit expectations, there is no way, without seeming to undermine the smooth functioning of the church – and unless one is willing to leave membership – to challenge an effect of governance, even if its implementation conflicts with conscience. One could not, for example, petition for a referendum – such a move would be seen as maliciously divisive and yet this proscription is particularly and peculiarly shocking in a denomination that prides itself on freedom of conscience, a free and responsible search for truth – and which prides itself on governing through “democratic principles”. Indeed, it is against the constant proclamation of being “democratic” that the actual procedures of governing seem so contrary. In this, our congregation appears to mirror exactly not only the democratic claims of the larger society within which we are embedded but to mirror the procedures for controlling both dissonance and the dissent consequent upon it.
Organizations such as Avaaz have begun to address directly, through the creation of national and international petitions, new ways for the governed to deconstruct the distortions in representation. Indeed, recently the on-line petition has come to the fore as one method of social and cultural leverage, just as social media have opened opportunities to organize outside of the parliamentary system. It is the terrible dissonance between the notion of living in a democracy and the sense of futility in exercising one’s vote that has had such a corrosive effect on citizen identity, on the one hand and, on the other, have given rise to extra-governmental methodologies which provide some sense of direct participation in the issues of the day.
But so too, rulers have sought ways of ruling outside of traditional venues. In the present day, the contempt for “democracy” by those ruling ostensible democracies is not hard to find. In Canada, of course, the proroguing of Parliament, not once but . twice, the dismissal of a Contempt of Parliament citation as irrelevant, the Robocall scandal are but a few of the concrete indications that even the current structures of democracy, flawed though they be, are being bypassed by rule through other structures that represent citizens even less.
Although they wrap themselves in its rhetoric for purposes of gaining or retaining the right to rule, those in power can scarcely tolerate the disguise of democracy much less contemplate what that might actually be like, and the proof of this assertion is that petition and referendum, minimum feedback mechanisms, are seen as an affront (not merely a technical hurdle), a withdrawal of that mandate (“trust” writ large) that the ballot was supposed to unequivocally bestow.
If demo -kratia, rule by the people, of the people and for the people, is to truly exist then not only must these instruments of feedback inhere in governmental structures to create robust engagement with and by citizens, there must also be a serious interrogation of the mystique of trust in regard to leaders and leadership. For it is both the lack of feedback mechanisms and the mystique of leadership that constitute the instruments by which potential democracy is shackled.
And of course, there is fundamental relationship between a lack of participatory vehicles and the mystique of leadership: that relationship must be recognized before it becomes possible to understand the extent of the dilemma we face. What is this thing called “trust” which summons us to obedience?
The issue of trust
The trust requirement
There is a hymn which goes “I would be true for there are those who trust me”. We did, in our congregational conversation, discuss the meanings of “truth” and “true” – but these both seemed to take lesser places to the concept of “trust”. Precisely what ought to pertain in a religious congregation, it appears, is the fundamental element of “faith” (“in things unseen”) which must extend beyond what is merely “true” and with this extra endowment, “faith”, transmutes truth to trust.
This requirement to have or demonstrate faith also has the unfortunate effect of cleaving “truth” from “trust”, however, and inverting the relationship of spiritual responsibility. We are apparently required to place our trust in our leaders rather than require our leaders to earn our trust by being true. Indeed, that one might be reticent to indulge in trust was seen as pitiable – and not as a principled stand through which one discerned those who were “true” from those who were not; that anyone wishing to be “trusted” was required to behave in a trustworthy manner first, and if ever behaving in ways that seem devoid of truth, would lose trustworthiness accordingly – or simply that to be required to “trust” was an infringement of sovereignty – seemed to be characterized as unfortunately cynical.
The quaint notion that one ought to place faith in truth, what is true, rather than requiring faith to provision trust, is apparently anathema in church government – as it also appears to be in state government. I can remember, and perhaps so can you, politicians proclaiming that “the facts” were of lesser importance than unquestioning patriotism, allegiance and loyalty, all close cousins of trust. These are dangerous sentiments, in small situations no less than large for the small train us as to how we shall respond in the larger frame. How did it come to this? The truth is that we have lived, for all of history, pulled between truth and loyalty, and that each must check and balance the other – but, if push comes to shove, let it be for truth.
The other element in the transmutation of true/truth into trust is, of course, those on whom we have bestowed our hard won faith: leaders. If there is a mystique surrounding “trust”, there is an equal mystique surrounding leaders and the office of leadership. Together, trust and leadership reinforce each other, for good or ill – and without either interrogation or levelling devices, the historic records suggests that the compound tends to social ill. We need also to understand that enthralment too, if we are to participate responsibly in democratic governance.
The Mystique of Leadership
Many years ago, I wrote (under another name) an article for Toronto Life Magazine entitled “Glitter Fallout” concerning my experiences in the “green room” as the wife of a rising music star, watching the way in which celebrity affected everyone around the spotlight who was, however, not in it. I can square that with a book simply called “Kingship” which argues that democracy is a momentary phenomenon and that most of human history has been lived under the psychological, spiritual and religious (not to mention the economic and political ) sway of enthralment to figureheads.
This last isn’t strictly true – most anthropologists would tell you that the long prehistory of humans and until recently, still for many band level people, lives were lived in small relatively egalitarian groups with stringent levelling devices which cut down any pretensions to “power over” and consciously deconstructed “charisma” as a form of social hubris.
Then something – or many things – happened and we fell in love with “leaders” and gave over to them our sovereignty – we endowed them with wisdom they have no more than do we, we invested them with power we can not easily take back. Somehow, our own sense of powerlessness is seemingly, strangely assuaged when we ally ourselves with a figure more powerful than we perceive ourselves to be – yet the price is a further diminishment in our own sovereignty: Glitter Fallout comes at a high social and personal cost. It demands that we be followers and that we allow ourselves to be led. We not only fell in love with leaders, we fell in love with “leadership” – and worse, with the office of the leader, so that the esteem once vested, through personal experience of true-ness from a leader, now reposes in the office, as in a bank, to be drawn on by those who later attain the key to that now exalted door. But we have come to suspect that banks do not contain the riches we deposited in them. Yet, though we have lived through so many cycles of boom and bust, apparently that mystique, once let loose into our institutions of governance, can be gainsayed only by extraordinary insight, persistence and will.
That representative democracy mediates between our sovereignty and our subject status is its utility but one that must always be countered by mechanisms which throw the weight of governance toward consensus of sovereign and responsible citizens and away from fascism – and dictators in democratic disguise. May all our spiritual homes help us to be citizens and not subjects – the free church ought not to require submission but prepare us for exercise of citizenship immanent and transcendent – which would, by the way, be my definition of “anarchy” – life without rule of one citizen by another but through their mutual recognition of the rights and needs of each other and of all – vouchedsafe by an inseparable relationship between conscience and truth.