Tag Archives: democracy

Dancing with Speeches #25 Eleanor Roosevelt

In 1936 Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech to the US on the meaning of libraries. The love of books and the health of a democracy are inextricably bound. We know that what was ahead was the burning of books in WW2 was a sign of the rise of fascism and the Grim Reaper’s call of death to dangerous ideas. Stimulating the reading of the same book by large groups of people can build the foundations of a movement and create public discourse. The health of libraries is a barometer for the health of democracy.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech talks about receiving a letter from a man in his late 70s who together with his neighbour in his 80s, had learnt to read their last winter at their local library and in doing so had new worlds open to them. He was writing to the First Lady because he was disturbed to find out that in the time of depression the adult education classes funding had been cut and this winter there would not be such classes. The winter had provided a safe, warm comfortable place to gather with neighbours to learn and connect. It had built a future where before they felt there wasn’t one.

I saw on facebook last night a friend of mine who is a librarian in Sydney was hosting a session for Mandarin speaking people on what the Australian electoral system was all about and how to vote as preparation for the upcoming Federal election. In the safety and security of the library questions were asked, ideas explored, participation in democracy enabled. I had a conversation with a co-worker during the week, where she shared a story of being a child on an island off the coast of Britain and that a few doors down from her house was the local library. It was the place she could be found at least once a week soaking up new books, discovering new ideas and building a life long love of reading. Yet another person told me on public transport what book their Book Club was reading and how they had waited for a while as their local library had the book they wanted on a wait list as it was in so much demand by other book clubs.

Libraries are in the baseline of our communal expression – a place to learn to read, to love books, to meet others, to join in with decision-making, to come in from the cold of old ideas and real time warmth in winter.

I had the amazing good fortune to work on Tomorrow’s Libraries a study and recommendations for South Australia and the same messages of literacy, social cohesion, tolerance, informed decision-making and a better start in life for children came out over and over again. The place of libraries still front and centre of these pillars of democracy.

The future of public libraries lies in the value they create from the nexus of people, place, knowledge and technology to create a platform for learning, participation, creativity, innovation and well-being.

Although there are other community and commercial places that provide opportunities for meeting and activity, the public library is the only institution that brings these things together for community and society’s benefit. Through the library people can engage, learn and participate and be introduced to new ideas and technologies in a safe and supportive environment. The value of this mix of assets and resources should not be underestimated.

The future of public library services is underpinned by the following values:

  • Equity of access: anyone regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, age or ability is welcom
  • Freedom of expression: a diversity of points of view is represented in a library’s collections
  • Right to know: learning and access to ideas and knowledge is a universal right
  • Trust: in the quality of the information, services and staff

matilda mrs phelpsI recently got to see the Melbourne production of Tim Minchin’s musical of the Roald Dahl book “Matilda” it was an amazing set and framed by words and a library, a receptacle of music, dancing, discovery, and great story telling! Row of books hid villains, held secrets, offered listening ears and audiences to wild and wonderful tales. The librarian’s role of witness was a still point for reflection and hosted the story and its teller. Mrs Phelps the librarian gives the right of passage ticket – a library card – to enable the Reader (Matilda) to take books home! This simple act is the first time an adult gifts the child,  and from then on there is no stopping Matilda taking up her power. This delivers to her rights, responsibilities and capacity to recognised for her genius. Just imagine all  the librarians who have done this for other children throughout the ages!

There is a generous and gorgeous collection of photos from the USA about the power of public libraries from Robert Dawson. In the foreward of this book Bill Moyers says: “When the library is being reinvented in response to the explosion of information and knowledge, promiscuous budget cuts in the name of austerity, new technology and changing needs . . . Dawson shows us . . . what is at stake—when the library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.”

It was in the depression that Eleanor Roosevelt found the power of libraries so vital that she spoke to the nation, and it is a message as relevant today for the USA and rest of the world. Hatred and fear comes from infertile soil. There has never been a more important time for the power of the institution of the public library to rise and shine and mobilise and heal. I fear if I did research on the places where there is mayhem and division I might find a direct correlation with non-existent or seriously under funded libraries.

Eleanor_Roosevelt_and_Nikita_Khrushchev_at_the_Franklin_D._Roosevelt_Library_in_Hyde_Park_-_NARA_-_195416

Eleanor Roosevelt and Nikita Khruschchev at the Franklin D Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park 1959

Dancing with Speeches #1: Socrates and the price of free speech.

Socrates

Socrates

Inspired by Socrates speech in defence of being charged with not believing in the gods of Athens and corrupting youth.

When democracy starts to falter who do we look to blame? Men of Athens put Socrates to the test, the one who was deemed to be inciting the young to join and follow the Thirty Tyrants terrorizing the city and destroying their way of life. Socrates answered what may have been considered trumped up charges of three men with credentials in poetry, political and oratory – all men who knew how to turn a phrase and persuade and persuade they did the 500 strong jury to find Socrates guilty of turning the young against the State and not believing in the gods of the city. Once tried, the sentence was death – by his own hand through drinking hemlock prepared by the State. The first martyr to free speech in the earliest of democracies.

Not believing in the gods of the state, does not mean you have no beliefs, on the contrary, it may well mean you have beliefs that are so strong that you beliefs transcend your desire for your own life. This behavior is well worn in our time – could Socrates have just been an early version of the old men who send the young to do their dirty work against democracy and support the growth of outlaw gangs to bring down those rightfully elected? Whipping up the flames of hatred and war among young men by denouncing the ‘gods’ holding political, economic and social systems together? Does this sound familiar?

Socrates crime may not have been that he gave words meaning and the cause of the Thirty Tyrants legitimacy with his philosophizing on the streets, answering the questions put to him by his fellow citizens – it may have been that he didn’t speak up when those words were used to build the movement that threatened the city’s lifestyle. And when he had the chance to defend himself, he chose to bully and cajole his accusers. He challenged the jury to allow diversity of thought in the city and criticized them for not having the courage to think outside the town square. The cost was too high for the city to have this voice continue to be heard. They valued their lifestyle more … and is that such a bad thing? To say no to terror and to protect what you value. What is wrong with drawing a line in the sand and say we will not be subject to thoughts that turn into words that can be used by those who want to incite terror and destroy a democracy (with all its imperfections – because Athens certainly had some – just ask the women and slaves) ?

This argument has two sides.

In our time, we continue to condemn those whose opinions or prophesies we find uncomfortable, and some like Socrates, find their voice leads them to their death. When we don’t reform and include those who voices are excluded from the discourse we diminish the richness of the struggle to listen harder to learn to understand where they are coming from and why they feel left out. We also run the risk of giving legitimacy to their cause when a martyr is found. And not all causes will martyrdom be the way forward, it may well lead to more destruction and violence. It is the challenge for democracy to find a way to hear the voices and integrate, reform, develop, evolve.

How do we, democracy enthusiasts, include those voices who do incite hatred, who are willing to put their gods above all others, who refuse to come to the table without words of hate, who are willing to die for their beliefs?

This is the challenge of our time, we do not have the luxury of the Men of Athens to bring 500 jurors together and determine a course of action that ended in the state assisted suicide of a thought leader. Bullets and bombs replace words. The clash of gods have the crusades raging again and generations are marching across the planet fleeing from their homelands.

Socrates ingested the poison of the State and died – the most philosophical and poetic of actions. The most complete way of demonstrating what he believed was that Athens was faltering and it is said he looked forward to continuing his conversations with Orpheus and Musæus, Hesiod and Homer in the next world. This feels like only a few steps away from those who pull the thread on a suicide bombing jacket who because of their beliefs are willing to make the sacrifice to go to their maker and their heaven.

From Clementine Ford to Alan Jones – democracies need all the voices, even the ones we don’t want to hear. Being able to hear the voices without resorting to hemlock or jackets packed with explosives as extreme ways for the voice to be visible is the work of those who are seeking better democracies. Those voices who spoke up and charged Socrates were an orator, a politician and a poet. They were not the most reliable, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t have the right to name the problem as they saw it, take it to the jury and let the people decide. Free speech comes with a high price for both buyers and sellers in the market place of the global agora. How much are you willing to pay?

Price of Democracy by Bert Guillermo http://breweryartwalk.com/gallery/guillermo-bert

Price of Democracy by
Bert Guillermo http://breweryartwalk.com/gallery/guillermo-bert

One big union

Dear Hildegard,

September 11 passed my way this week, and like many others, my thoughts went to that day in New York. The city that never sleeps, had its two front teeth punched out, and irreplaceable DNA became cosmic dust forming swirling clouds of grief that choked more than the city.

Across the other side of the world I discovered someone I knew was lost and was then counted among the dead. As I often say two degrees of separation in Adelaide is often one too many.  Andrew was his name and he had given me a copy of One Big Union for me to learn more about the Australian Workers Union.  I loved learning more about the foundations of the Australian Labor Party.  Years later I gave the copy Andrew gave me to Anthony Chavez the grandson of Cesar Chavez the great leader of farmworkers in the USA.  Anthony is Br David Steindl-Rast’s assistant and a wonderful young man, just as Andrew was a wonderful young man with a vision of a better future for workers in this land.  Two young men separated by time, place and culture coming together in my little universe and through the labour movement.

This weekend Australia rejected the worker’s party and chose the party of capital – although it was hard at times to recognise much difference between them – but by the time the three years are up I am sure that will have been clarified for many voters.

The relationship between land and capital was alive and well in your time too and your crafty redistribution of property. Those young noblewomen who voted with their feet, leaving their families and promises of marriage gifting their dowries to your convent. When you set up your convent in Rupertsberg, those monks you were leaving behind I expect weren’t that excited about your move in taking your charges and their land with you!

Hildegard you had visions that guided your steps and just as surely did the nonviolent revolutionaries like Cesar Chavez and the violent leaders of al-Qaeda; I ask myself, what kind of vision do I have to bring about the reforms I yearn for? The ballot box seems such an unimaginative vessel for revolution to be birthed, and yet I am a big fan of democracy. I suspect you weren’t that much of a fan of democracy, after all the church certainly wasn’t in your time and isn’t in mine anything like a democracy.

Whether we find our selves running down the stairs to evacuate, sitting on a plane captured like an animal behind bars; abandoning our family or holding the banner and marching in the streets; we find ourselves in a big story. It is one big union we are all called to belong, and that union for me, is the uni-verse; the place where the one voice unites us all and calls us to a deep and sacred place.  My vision is for one song we all sing together in as many harmonies as we can invent; for one big union that we are all in together.

It’s not easy to hold on to this vision when planes fly into buildings, when people and their lands are separated from one another and when a government gets elected by neighbours that don’t share your values and idea of democracy.

One Big Union

The stairwell is filled with smoke.

I won’t be returning to my family home.

I remember who I am;

And where I am going.

 

The cloister is filled with incense.

I won’t be returning to my family home.

I remember who I am;

And where I am going.

 

The field is filled with cries.

I won’t be returning to my family home.

I remember who I am;

And where I am going.

 

I clear my throat;

I close my eyes;

I fold my arms;

I open my heart;

I apply my head;

I find my way;

And

I remember where I am going.

 

The workers descend.

The choirs sing.

The workers rise.

Each voice adds to the next;

One big union for one big universe.

Solitary candle waiting for another one to be lit.