This is What Democracy Feels Like

I delivered this speech at TEDxBenha on February, 20th, 2013 in Benha, Egypt. You may leave comments on the Facebook version.


I am deeply honored to be with you here in Benha, Egypt. This is my first journey to Africa – birthplace of humanity – and, more recently, the brilliant spark in a global fire of real democracy that is now engulfing the entire planet we inhabit. I am referring, of course, to the popular uprising we Americans call the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond people took to the streets to end dictatorship and demand a better life for the 99%, to demand control over their lives and their government.


This part of the world has a history of participatory democracy, which I define as democracy that encourages participation by all. Not far from here, in Athens, Greece, the world saw the first – and perhaps the last – direct democracy. The ancient Greeks understood that tyranny and empire – the cult of personality, insatiable greed and lust for power – are the true enemies of democracy. They built a democracy that was inclusive and engaging, and from those times great philosophical works emerged. Today’s Greeks can attest to the fragility of democracy in the face of oppression, and they take to the streets yet again in defiance of the World Bank, the I.M.F., and the chilling austerity of global finance.


I want to tell you all here in Benha how indebted we are to you for the bravery that you showed through the Arab Spring, and even into today. What you began here has rippled around the entire world, from Madrid to Athens, Tel Aviv to Santiago, London to Oakland, California. And, yes, you are felt on Wall Street, where on September, 17, 2011 my friends and I descended with camping bags on our backs and the dream of real democracy in our hearts. The dream of Tahrir Square, of Plaza de Sol and of Madison, Wisconsin. We are making it a reality now.


Today, the discussion is about positive voice in nation-building. And it is with our voices that everything begins. Our voices connect the dreams we share with each other:


¡Si no nos dejaís soñar, no os dejarémos dormir! / If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep!


proclaimed the Indignados of Spain, infuriated by the corruption of their government as they were being told that more spending cuts are needed to let Spain “live within its means”. They poured into the public squares by the millions, finding each other and sharing stories that were once only told in private at the dinner table. In Tel Aviv, Arabs and Jews alike pitched tents in the street in protest of the rising cost of living, because economic injustice knows no one religion. In common struggle for land, housing, food, water, clean air, and work we find our voice. We are the voices of the 21st century, young and old. These many voices, diverse and accepting, will be the antibodies of global finance, the world’s natural auto-immune response to the greatest threat to democracy today.


Yet, voices are soft in isolation. We are learning to amplify them online and offline. The People’s Microphone, is a simple tool we use to unite our voices as one:


We are the 99%!  احنا ال ٩٩ في المية 


On the internet, we do this with Twitter. A single, small voice can become a global call to action with just a tweet. No longer is history being written by the winners, it is being written by everyone, as my friend and independent journalist and livestreamer Tim ‘Timcast’ Pool writes. The internet is giving voice to the voiceless, and young people today have brains that are quickly re-wiring themselves to this new reality. The internet is rapidly democratizing mainstream media, opening new and diverse paths to information and knowledge. Large institutions crumble as their business models, which rely upon monopolistic state control of “intellectual property”, become ever-more obsolete in a hyperconnected, globalized and increasingly nation-state-less world. As Wikileaks founder Julian Assange says,


We are burning the mass media to the ground.


And we’re doing it peacefully, one tweet at a time.


But voice is not just about outward-facing media, it’s also about inward-facing community and nation-building. The founders of my country, understanding that freedom of speech and a free press are essential to democracy, enshrined these principles in the 1st amendment: that the government shall make no law abridging the people’s right to assemble, to speak out, to express themselves and practice their multitude of religions, and to communicate by means of a press free from government control and manipulation. This is just one more piece of evidence that the founders of the United States, themselves escapees from state persecution, recognized that a free people must be free from their overpowering government as well. And they baked into the Constitution rules by which the government could be overthrown if it failed to provide the blessings of liberty to the people. Considering the rising power of corporations and the erosion of American civil liberties, that time in my country may come sooner than later.


The power of the Occupy movement, which has now spread around the world and is finding its place among global democracy movements, is in our bold exclamation ‘We are the 99%!’ The 99% are doctors, nurses, students, teachers, mechanics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Atheists, the employed, the unemployed, babies and parents, all of us. We want to be in control of our government, not for it to control us. We want to rebuild democracy from the bottom up, not from the top down. Because, despite what some in my country’s government might say, democracies are not built with bombs or drones. Democracies are not built by royal decree or by invisible market forces. Democracies are built by the active consent of the people. People like you and me.


Democracy isn’t just about voting every 2 or 4 years. It isn’t just about flying a flag on your home or carrying an ID card. Democracy is a social contract between you and your neighbor. It begins locally with the choices that affect you each day: the school your children attend, the conditions of your workplace and the laws that govern the production of your food. You can entrust these services to other people but when they fail you, do you have any recourse? Are you a stakeholder in your well-being?


There is a people that for centuries had no rights at all, and were not even considered to be people. They were slaves, unpeople, and when they finally were freed of their literal bondage they were enslaved to a new master: corporations. They were crammed into ghettos and their behaviors were criminalized so that they filled prisons across the country. They made such small wages in such filthy conditions that their jobs were akin to temporary slavery. From this struggle emergenced a movement called the Civil Rights movement, to which the world owes an unquantifiable debt of gratitude. The voices of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X ring true even today, and define a path to freedom and against injustice anywhere, which is a threat to justice everywhere.


Now, I am a teacher by training. So consequently I see nation-building as primarily an educational endeavor. This is quite a radical notion for many people, as we are trained to believe that democracy must be imposed by force rather than grown by consciousness-raising. Thus, nation-building – they say – isn’t about building institutions of learning and community empowerment but rather just installing the right government by obvious, or subtle, force. There are few human instincts that are stronger than human curiosity, and the desire to learn about the things around you and how they work. If you start from this premise that people are learners by nature then it’s obvious that a strong democracy will emphasize and prioritize education. I cannot make an informed decision in my community without good information. An ignorant populace is a weak, and vulnerable, populace. It is for this exact reason that a government that cares about its people will prioritize accessibility to education for all. If you suspect that your government doesn’t care about you, you might look at its educational policies for confirmation.


When I chant We are the 99%! I am expressing a truth about the world today: we have never been so unequal. By every measure, we are a world divided. The American Dream – that everyone, no matter what the color of their skin or their mother-tongue, could work hard and make a decent living for their family – died in 2008. (For some, it probably died long before that!) It died when the world was forced to admit that an economy based on debt could not be sustained. As banks crumbled and governments rushed to bail them out with their citizens’ hard-earned money, the fragile social contract of democracy was ripped to shreds. Instead of the promise to keep people in their homes when banks collapsed, we now see the violence of foreclosure and evictions, and six times more empty homes than homeless people in the streets. We chant:


Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!


We are divided by debt, entire countries held hostage under the demand of repayment, but there is more that unites us. We are human. We care about our families and our neighbors. We know that enriching the few at the expense of the many will threaten our lives infinitely more than a few missed car payments. They have money – we have solidarity. And so I return to that beautiful starting point: positive voice. How will we use our voices to make positive social change?


I have to share one last story, because it gets to the heart of what it means to make positive social change and nation-build at home. This story starts from an almost-laughable premise: that my government should be nation-building in the Middle East while millions suffer at home. This is why the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no real end in sight, are so massively unpopular. My friends in New York City who see suffering and hunger each day refuse to believe that we live in a country that doesn’t care. So we took action.


When deadly Hurricane Sandy hit New York City last October, hundreds of people died and thousands were displaced, their homes flooded or torn apart by wind and rain. The city was not prepared for the massive recovery effort needed to help everyone, especially the poorest people who were hit the hardest like in all disasters. Introduce: Occupy Sandy. Using social media, crowd-sourced fundraising across our international network, and tens of thousands of volunteers on the ground, we roared into action. We set up distribution sites in churches, synagogues, mosques, community centers, or just a table on the street corner. We used free tools like Google Voice and donated pre-paid phones, wireless hotspots and netbook laptops to coordinate the shipment of hundreds of tons of donated items from across the city and the country. All of this by volunteers organized and rallied by the Occupy movement. This is M.A.D.A., mutual aid as direct action. And


This is what democracy looks like. 


In a world of austerity, cutbacks to social services, corrupt, opaque governments and privatization of public goods and public spaces, this is the future of disaster recovery. The world faces massive challenges to the very survival of humanity and the natural world. Will the global 99% lie down and be trampled by ever-more consolidated multinational corporations that hold entire countries hostage? Or will we rise up and demand control over our collective future as global citizens? Will democracy promotion come as a gun – or a drone’s – bullet, or will it come from the ballot box? Will indigenous lands be exploited for ever last drop of a limited, disappearing natural resource, or will the developed world set an example for all to follow as a leader in climate change legislation?


Or will we leave more than just crippling debt and a parched earth to our children, so that 100 years from now people of all races, religions, colors and creeds can co-exist peacefully as controllers of their own destiny and say:


This is what democracy feels like.