The Ecstasy of Politics

Monument to the Velvet Revolution, made out of 86,000 keys donated by the citizens of Prague. (sycamore stirrings)

It’s hard to imagine in the deflated reality of the federal sequester, and as the winners of 2012 (however they define themselves) watch with undisguised glee as the losers (however they are defined) tear themselves apart at the annual CPAC conference, that there might be something very personally, individually rewarding about politics and political action.

The literally score of visitors to this web site may have noticed I have used this portal to promote CULTURESHUTDOWN, which has been working to draw attention to the situation of seven cultural institutions in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

We were delighted to see our efforts met with an extraordinary response: more than 200 museums, galleries and libraries in 40 countries around the world. The reaction was made all the more meaningful when we saw the images come in, using the organization’s trademark “closed for business” tape. The repetition of the same trope, seen over and over again on so many artifacts and art pieces, is extraordinary.

I don’t think I’m betraying any confidences when I say my friends (none of whom I’ve directly met yet) communicated something extraordinary among ourselves as this was happening – a profound emotion as we saw these other cultural organizations pledge their support to their counterparts in Sarajevo – something like elation, even ecstasy. I’d felt something like it before, but it was such an unusual experience that I thought it was purely unique to the situation, or to me.

But to see my friends now enjoy essentially the same experience was deeply reassuring and satisfying. It is difficult to find analogies in recent or historical experiences because I think this feeling must be connected to political action, the direct personal participation in politics.

The easiest and most common example of this is, of course, voting, and in a democracy this certainly bears repeating. Voting feels wonderful, satisfying, concrete. It is not an individual, selfish act, but a contribution to a whole. And knowing that many others — millions of others — are participating in the same act makes it an act of communion. Political action crosses some barrier — bridges some gap — between people.

Those who vote never feel their ballot is wasted or canceled out, or that there is no difference between the parties. They always feel they have done something real and extraordinary.

Voting in countries with a more attenuated relationship to democracy provides this experience, which is all the more poignant, direct and profound. This has been seen this across the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, but I remember this particular description of Iraq during the country’s first elections in 2006, as described by George Packer:

A young Iraqi girl asked for her finger to be inked even though she was too young to vote in the election. (Ahmed al-Hussainey/AP via Christian Science Monitor)

“Sunday morning was strange and beautiful. The streets were so quiet that people later said it was like a feast day. Families, including small children and grandparents, were walking together along the wide avenues, everyone dressed in fine clothes.  ‘I’ve lived over fifty years, and I’ve never had such a feeling,’ [said one man]. ‘My skin had a strange feeling, like goosebumps. We’ve had a great culture for six thousand years, and now I think our humanity is proved.'”

It’s impossible to be cynical about democracy, and politics, in the presence of such feeling, and it’s important to remember that the political action of the Arab Spring and 1989, and the color revolutions, and those in-between — Serbia, Burma, and struggles elsewhere — provide this feeling, which has a strong moral vein. As Vaclav Havel wrote, for decades under communism, the political system very effectively denied its citizens the right to political action, which is to say collective moral activity.

The Velvet Revolution had its own ecstatic moments. Timothy Garton Ash describes the zenith of the revolution in Wenceslas Square in Prague, when hundreds of thousands citizens jangled their house keys together: “The people in the square make the most extraordinary spontaneous gesture. They all take keys out of their pockets and shake them, 300,000 key-rings, producing a sound like massed Chinese bells.”

It is easy to imagine the ecstasy of millions on Election Night in Hyde Park, Chicago, realizing the magnitude of what we had achieved. The 2008 election achieved something beyond the vote, just as the Civil Rights Movement achieved something more than just the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act. Especially in the wake of the 2012 election, 2008 looks more and more like our own Velvet Revolution.

It’s unfortunate to recall it was this kind of mass reaction that political philosophers have feared for centuries. They could make very little distinction between the rule of the mob and bona fide democratic power. But that may be because they almost to a man never experienced political action personally, didn’t understand politics subjectively, and therefore never developed the subtle judgement necessary to parse the moral tableau they didn’t even try to study. So instead, as Pascal noted, they played games by drawing up constitutions for governments that would best contain the worst instincts of politics that they saw on display.

Those kind of instincts are hard to imagine when recalling the end of World War II in Britain. Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, took to the balcony with other members of his government at Whitehall to address a huge crowd following the surrender of Germany. He called to the crowd, “This is your victory!” The crowd roared back, “No, it is yours!” It is hard to imagine a finer moment to capture the world’s most venerable democracy as it emerged from its gravest ordeal: its elected leader insisting the people had prevailed, and his voters insisting that he had.  And it easy to feel the relief, joy, maybe even the ecstasy of that communion.


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