I found myself crying again today. Not at the top of a mountain peak, but standing in the Great Hall of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where vaulted ceilings soar over stained glass and murals and mosaics that for centuries have invited visitors to contemplate on the great themes of freedom, justice, and truth that inspire the art they are about to encounter.
For the past two weeks I have worked my way east and north across Europe – from the placid lakeshores of Geneva, meeting with the United Nations and their researchers who strive to realize the modern hopes for peace and justice contained therein;
to a short break in the quiet but lively mountain villages of the Appenzell region of Switzerland, where freedom is celebrated every day in the high mountain Alps and conflicts are settled amicably before they escalate out of control;
then on to Carinthia just north of the border with Slovenia, where I joined a joyful celebration of life well-lived with a talented, hardworking and creative multi-generational Austrian family in the shadow of mountains peaks that over the years have separated peaceful nations from those at war.
From there, I headed almost due north through Germany to the Netherlands for a weeklong conference in lovely and serene town Delft, and now am winding up the European leg of my research with a few days in den Haag and Amsterdam, home to many Diaspora communities – including a large one from Somalia – who have resettled here to realize their dreams of freedom, opportunity, and justice. These ideals, I have been reminded, have deep roots here in The Netherlands – much more so than I have heretofore appreciated — with concepts of citizen rule and a government for the people predating the great American experiment with democracy by a few hundred years or so … in fact William of Orange was assassinated in the quiet town of Delft many centuries ago for leading the Dutch people in the pursuit of these.
My reflections on democracy – what it is, how it is achieved, and how it is manifested – have been heightened on this journey in unexpected ways. My Austrian hosts returned from an evening concert in Klagenfurt debating whether what they heard was modern music or noise. The essential question continued over morning coffee the next day – What constitutes music? Does the audience or composer subjectively define what they hear as music, or do more objective measures – such as structure and purpose – differentiate between sound as noise and sound as music?
The views were divergent and passionate, even among the relatively homogenous family of Austrian musicians. It reminded me of what I observed the previous weeks as I climbed mountains in Colorado, Switzerland and Austria. In each area, the local communities had found their own way to manage the challenges of living in the mountains – where working together is essential for making it to the tops of the peaks and surviving. Their ways differed, sometimes significantly, but in the end they found ways to work together towards common purpose. The common thread is that there IS a common thread – some structure of relating and communicating that works in repeatable patterns. Is this what makes music, my Austrian friends ask – regardless of the harmony of outcomes? And if so, who gets to define harmony – the composer or the listener? Is there a rule to the structure of relationships that one must follow; can new rules be made up?
In Switzerland, they carry out the democratic traditions espoused by the German philosopher, Jorgen Habermas, with democracy as a public “communicative act” essential for advancing human freedom. The Swiss of Appenzell manage their society through annual public meetings where all citizens vote on important issues. My friends there tell me that one of the most profound and important results is the dialogue and debate that occurs in and around these meetings that involve everyone in the community. This discourse raises the quality of decision-making while empowering all in the community. As one moves from the villages into the larger urban areas, the model predictably breaks down as larger market forces create system level pressures driven solely by utilitarian rationality (such as markets) that compete with the more nuanced interests of individuals based on other measures of well-being and happiness.
My Austrian friends, however, complain of cronyism and stalemate in their democratic organization based on a two-party system of representation. I empathize with their frustration reflecting on the situation in my country, yet point out that the Austrian focus on party rather than the person, as in the US, provides more stability and predictability. They follow the rules better. Yes, my friends counter, but their form of social democracy keeps them stuck in the same place with no growth without battling onerous bureaucracy. The contradiction is like the family argument over music – the recognized structures give us the beauty and perfection of the waltz but can they allow new forms to emerge and be given a chance?
The Netherlands, on the other hand, enjoys seemingly limitless possibilities of parties to challenge the status quo in reaching consensus. The trouble is, well, how long must one wait to reach consensus? And how many battles must be fought? And this is where I find myself weeping in the Great Hall of the Rijksmuseum in gratitude to so many who have bravely carried these battles for me in years past. The enormity of thought and effort that has gone into prescribing the organizations of society that have defined my world for most of my life is overwhelming.
Africa is young in this sense. A continent of over a billion people are in a race with time and nature and the rest of the modern world to find their own solutions to this fundamental question of how to organize a democratic society that works where they are. There are so many challenges – who defines the boundaries of what is a nation and what is not; who defines the level at which consensus on public decisions is reached and how; who evaluates the worthiness of the results? There is conflict and huge costs in human suffering. The West has paid its share of this price and I am lucky enough to be born after most of these struggles have been fought.
What is the role of the West in Africa and the conflicts that rage there as the struggle to build consensus and find stability with freedom, justice, and opportunity for all are worked through? What is the right relationship of old and new; foreign and “home-grown”? My conference meeting in Delft suggests that there are repeating patterns and structures to civil conflict that can shed light on finding the right balance to these questions. That is the hope of my research.
And so my meeting in Amsterdam at the HIRDA foundation was both inspiring and humbling. Run by a young woman born in Mogadishu, the organization is supported by the Somali Diaspora to realize the vision of a “Horn of Africa where Somali ethnic groups live in peace, without hunger and with equal opportunities for all.” My hostess is gentle and strong and full of hope in the face of what to me are unimaginable challenges. Her hope is grounded in the real day-to-day struggles of her people, not an academic exercise. And yet I can relate to themes that cross the boundary between us – how do women support each other to change systems that allow gender based violence to continue unchallenged?
Her solution reflects the approach to democracy adopted by the Swiss of Appenzell and advocated by Habermas: public awareness through communicative discourse. To change the system, the community must first feel a collective desire to hold the government accountable – and this requires knowing the issue at a personal level. It is a step by step process – first, women must feel safe to talk among themselves about their experiences. Then with men. Eventually, the whole community must feel a collective responsibility to end the violence. This process is not so different from what must be done anywhere in the world where vulnerable have no voice. It is my belief that a democratic system of representation cannot realistically work without first developing a deeply felt understanding and ownership of what it means to be the vulnerable in society. If so, it stands to reason that power sharing arrangements – such as those followed by the Austrians and the Netherlands – as a first step in governance for societies emerging from civil conflict will eventually fail without this public discourse.
How does this example extend to other issues driving conflict in Somalia, for other parts of Africa experiencing recurring conflict? I don’t know yet. I pause on my journey to allow the tears to flow. May I find my own little niche to contribute to answers in the great spheres watching over our world in this timeless drama involved in creating the art of life…..What are those right relations to be built with people I meet along the way, within communities, and within nations? We have great footsteps to follow in, but must make way to forge new paths at the same time. I step outside of the Rijksmuseum, where the masters are celebrated, to discover Van Gogh and the modern marvels of Danish architecture sitting side by side with ancient warships in the harbor. From here, on to Ethiopia to continue my search for answers!