Six Degrees of Separation and politics.

Six or fewer steps along the lines of “of a friend of a friend” separate you from me, or any other person in the world for that matter, yes including the kid from “sceptical third world kid“, look it up, it’s interesting.

With that in mind, if you are in any way familiar with Romania, or just took a passing glance at European news this past few days, you will know that last Friday something bad happened. At last count 32 people have died as a result of a fire in a night club, and more than 100 people were injured, a large percentage of whom are in a bad way.

Now, I don’t personally know any of them. But I do know people who did, and who have been touched in a very personal way by what happened. The entire nation is touched in some way – how could they not be. Tragedies happen all the time all over the world – boats capsize in the Mediterranean, people get shot in Syria but this time it’s close to home.

I was talking to a friend the other day who said its’ a rather hypocritical response given the amount of suffering in the world, to so energetically mourn just these people, and I suppose in the grand scheme of things that would be true, save for six degrees of separation.

So if emotion can be carried as a form of radiation in this… we’ll call it a field of human relationships (don’t read too much into the metaphor, it breaks down horribly after a while) it’s only natural for the effects of an event to measure higher if your measurement instrument is closer – that doesn’t necessarily mean African refugees don’t matter, it’s just that it’s farther away in the web – we don’t decry the potential destruction of civilisations when Type 1A supernovae occur, we just use them as standard candles to measure astronomical distances, and we don’t call that cynical, even though on an absolute scale – it is.

Speaking of cynicism.

What happened, as far as we know (the inquiry is still under way), is that small fireworks used on stage by a band ignited the soundproofing on a support pillar which then set the soundproofing on the ceiling on fire, chaos ensued and people were injured and died.

For this set of circumstances to come to be, several things have to occur. First someone has to have an idea to start a club, for this they need a company which they have to register and get the relevant local government approvals. For the local government approvals to be possible a national legislature has to pass laws to that effect. These laws have to be enforced by local and national authorities, otherwise they are worthless.

In a country such as Romania of which I am a citizen, we have come to mistrust the rigor of this enforcement and (suppositions follow, take with a pinch of salt) the higher you go in the age pyramid, the more of a percentage of the population you will find who is not hostile to this state of fact, but rather content that this is an immutable part of who we are. The lower you go however, the more the idea becomes unpalatable.

Given the situation we can perhaps conclude (the jury is still out mind you) that several corners were cut in order to get the business going and to keep costs down and beer cheap enough that people would come, this included skimping on fireproofing and the use of flammable materials. Colectiv is one of many clubs in downtown Bucharest, and I contend that many if not all have done the same.

The owner is probably guilty and should go to prison. But he is not alone. In order for this appalling set of circumstances to converge several government officials in different branches would have had to either be exceedingly incompetent (which is guilt enough on its’ own), or corrupt, or both.

As of late the environment in the public square has been filled with the strong momentum of a national crusade on corruption, I would even venture to say that the seeds sown in 1989 into the body of this nation have started to mature into an actual backbone – people are protesting all kinds of things out in the streets, but corruption most of all, and most vigorously.

Since Friday night a silent hatred has been brewing. Thousands of people have been marching, giving more blood than ever before, getting involved on social media (the number of conspiracy theories is only an indicator I hope of the number of actually sane people who are actively participating) and as of the time of writing, 20.000 people by some reports are clamoring for the prime minister’s and the interior minister’s resignation in front of the Government Palace, and all around Bucharest, this nation has a voice that is growing from the proverbial grass’ roots.

The people out there tonight are making sure the friends of their friends did not die in vain, and I am proud.

The shortcomings of democracy.

One of my friends read my previous post. The discussion that ensued lasted well into the night. We are not from the same country and so our views tend to be quite different about a number of things though sometimes they magically converge allowing us to discover the utility of debate. This was not a Bill Nye vs Ken Ham confrontation.

While this was going on, one of the people who have stumbled upon this blog mentioned something very important in the one comment to my last post. “The Athenians didn’t have it so great either (…)” they said. And I agree. I had mentioned them because ancient Greek democracy serves as the template to our own systems. We do not share all of the details of theirs but the concept is the same.

The one pervasive complaint everyone shares about the way government works is that the people who make it up are incompetent for the most part. Sometimes you can get lucky and have someone in charge who knows what they are doing, like Bismark. Now Prussia would hardly live up to the standards of a democracy nowadays. The most important point being that they did not have universal suffrage, and it was really democracy by the elite or, if you want to get technical, an aristocracy.

Make no mistake, Bismark was a dictator, but what sets him apart from Stalin or Hitler or others is the fact that he was not a madman. He was a nation builder however. Germany would not be what it is today had it not been for this man. Not a perfect leader, but one who could find compromise and who managed to unite the many Holy Roman states under one rule (Prussian rule) – a sum greater than its’ parts. In fact he did such a great job the nation he built was annihilated twice and within fifty years came back to the forefront of Europe.

Speaking of Europe. Why is Europe so sluggish? Why does it feel so far removed from the electorate? And why are Europeans so skeptical about it?

The answer is that it is obscure. Europe is run by a modern day elite who is not directly accountable for what it is doing. People feel that Europe meddles in their country’s internal affairs far too much. Additionally there are several layers of bureaucracy between the government and the governed. It is highly decentralized when compared to say China or the USA in terms of decision making.

That is to say even though rules come from Brussels and signatory states have to abide by them, there is no unitary foreign policy, domestic policy, immigration policy and this list can go on but it should end with “there is no head of state”.

I am making it harder and harder to believe that I am a proponent of a united Europe but since you have come this far I feel I should redeem myself.

I have so far described some of the issues the electorate has with Europe. There are those who also have a problem with the electorate however. It too is distant and out of touch. Take the Ukraine crysis for example. Mark Mardel (the BBC’s North America editor) wrote this piece today. It is remarkably alarmed for a Brit. In it he deplores the failure of the west to recognize the importance of the events.

Speaking from a rather more humble position of a citizen of Romania who does not work for an international news corporation I share this feeling. The people around me are far more concerned with what online clothing stores have on offer and where to get one’s nails / hair done, or how attractive the new girl is than they are with events that are likely to shape the future of us all. In fact, the only meaningful conversation I am able to have on the topic is with two of my closest friends and a Frenchman (a white Caucasian Frenchman immigrant to Romania, welcome to the Twilight Zone).

While personal experience alone does little to serve in the pursuit of truth, save for an indication of possible fact I submit that this is a widespread phenomenon in Europe, and much of the western world. This is our democracy, built on universal suffrage.

Universal suffrage is based on the assumption of universal education. It is in theory a system whereby an educated citizenry is able to make informed decisions about the issues being put before them for a vote. It sounds great on paper and it would be in practice if we could be confident people are actually educated. Note that I used the term educated rather than intelligent. Education is a formative process involving assimilation of factual knowledge as well as the reasoning skills to interpret this knowledge in ways that make sense. I again submit to the reader’s consideration that a non zero percentile of the electorate does not conform to this definition. In fact, an important part of the electorate does not conform to this definition.

Many of us see voting as a chore that we choose to humor the government in performing when in fact it should be a duty. A duty to ourselves and our children to vote responsibly and to consider carefully the choices we make.

Our politicians are mediocre because they are chosen from among the mediocre while the capable shy away from public service for fear of being embroiled in inconsequential power play that a mind concerned with real issues cannot stomach.

My my Kirk, you are angry… and you are patronizing, what do you propose we do?

Every country in the European Union organizes a national testing session once a year. Here it is called the Bacalaureat. Other places have different names for it but essentially it is a series of tests which gauge a high school graduate’s knowledge and reasoning. Sound familiar? I believe that people who are unable to pass this test should forfeit their right to vote until such time when they are able to resit the examinations and receive at least passing grades.

I do not believe people who have no grasp of mathematics, Europe’s geography or history should be allowed to participate in the decision making process as their vote is equivalent to casting dice at best and highly susceptible to very directly targeted manipulation at worst. Additionally, one should not be allowed to hold public office without having received a high mark in this examination for the same reasons. Those who thus become ineligible can always resit the tests just like they can now and become fully recognized citizens at any point in their lives.

Culling the electorate in this fashion will not only improve the quality of the votes but also reduce the need to have the number of representatives that we currently have from the ridiculous current total of 766 to a number that allows for less anonymity and much more relevant scrutiny by a voter base who is more informed than the one in our current model.

Should such a proposal ever be considered? Would you vote for it? Why? Leave a comment in the comment box below and let me know your thoughts.

Ukraine’s house of cards

I read BBC news. Daily. They are biased toward euro skepticism. It does well to counter my euro optimism and I think between the BBC news website and a little bit of my own digging I can get as accurate a picture of what’s going on in the world as you can by just sitting in front of your computer. It isn’t perfect and I think I could probably do a lot better to acquaint myself with the realities whizzing by around me.

As I am writing this, twenty six people have died since the violence started yesterday. These were members of the Maidan movement as well as law enforcement. We all know what Stalin said, it is cliche by now. These were people, like you and like me. They had families, hopes, aspirations, embarrassing memories of that one time at band camp. They were all alive a couple of days ago and are now dead.

Protests like this have been happening all the time. Group A wants something to change, they may or may not represent a majority of the population. The government says no, there is a standoff, a spark, and then broken lives. All in the name of political change. Which side you take is entirely a matter of opinion. There is very little to distinguish a right choice from the wrong one and indeed, often times, such a distinction is nonsensical as the contention is in fact about a conflict of interests between the groups.

Case in point, the Ukraine came to the spotlight of international news eight years ago when the so called Orange Revolution ousted mr. Yanukovich (yes the same man) from power under similar conditions, though without the loss of life. The politics devolved and the main protagonists of that event have all but disappeared. Today Viktor Yushchenko is not an active voice in the movement, and Yulia Tymoshenko is confined to a prison cell from which she occasionally makes statements that fall on deaf ears, both in her own country and abroad.

Eight years of political power play in Kiev and the Ukraine is back to square one, something of a future case study on the cyclic nature of history. We follow the developments and we argue back and forth about who is in the right and who is in the wrong, making statements, informed or not about how things should be and what is to be done.

Which brings me to the title of this article. How accurate is the Netflix show (I should find the book)? Surely it’s fiction and characters and plot features are great exaggerations of what actually goes on in our democratic systems. What I find is always lost in the narrative is often at least as important. We are never shown Zoe Barnes’ funeral, we really barely know her and the only attention her death is given is as an expose of NSA spying through the developments that follow. It wasn’t necessary you will say, we already came to know Peter Russo, it’s all the same. In this case, two is a statistic.

The fact is we all too rarely consider the reality of death and the toll that is being exacted. The coroner has to put her body back together… The initial report of the death toll in Independence Square came from a doctor who was in the protest camp. He was tasked to take care of these people, and there was little to nothing he could do for them. He would’ve had to do this in the blistering cold, acrid smoke of burning rubber, raging fires and in the chaos of a riot police raid on a fortified camp full of exhausted but determined… what?… Activists? Terrorists? Protesters? Hooligans?… People.

While I believe that we should be masters of our own destiny the truth is that there are probably far too many of us for representation to work the same way that it did for the Athenians. Individual voices become statistics. Individual ideas become abstract ideology that we attach to with varying levels of conviction, and only the loudest are heard. We elect one from among the loudest whom we most agree with and then it is out of our hands. Whether they meant what they said or not becomes irrelevant, they have the power now. The only way we know of for a group of elected people to govern is by means of politics. Yes the very same kind of politics that happen in your office, just with higher stakes and consequences that are farther removed.

Democracy is the least bad system of governance that we have been able to come up with up until this point. The Ukraine is now showing us why that is the case. I salute you neighbors, and I hope that it is not in vain.