Sweeney Todd, foreshadowing? – Or, why the UK needs a democracy festival!

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This post was inspired by previous Facebook posts I’ve made, regarding the phenomenon of European democracy festivals. I have not been aware of an awareness or interest for this in the UK, though I feel there should be in light of the Brexit issue(s) and related hybrid threats that have been uncovered by various investigations. I offer an argument for the need for our own democracy festival.

I have, somehow, managed to connect musical theatre classics with the Muppets and the Brexit melodrama playing out in the Houses of Parliament. Just when you thought you had seen all that Brexit reportage and analysis had to offer..!

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Brexit day has passed, and the UK is still clinging on to its precariously held position in the EU. The uncertainty has cost the UK £600 million a week. Some are angered, many are worried, all feel cheated. Though it sounds like the name of an excuse for another crappy national holiday, some were hoping for the British equivalent of the American ‘Independence Day’, a colourful heady party extravaganza and celebration of a triumphant revolutionary moment.

🎶 The Red, White, And The Blue 🎶

Many have viewed this slow tortuous, seemingly never-ending, process as an apocalyptic car crash – like the scene in Independence Day 2: Resurgence, with the alien queen ship’s gravitational pull ripping up whole cities & hurling them on others, such as the defenceless London, with a hellish landscape backdrop in the distance.

🎞 “What goes up, must come down” 🎞

Others seem to be making light of the nationalist fervour and right-wing populism the 2016 referendum ignited, like this Muppet parody of American nationalism/patriotic fervour.

🎶 Star Spangled Banner 🎶

Undoubtedly, what this historic and dramatic episode in British history teaches us is that there is a fundamental problem at the heart of British democracy (I would also argue, Western democracy).

🎶 There’s battle lines being drawn; Nobody’s right, if everybody’s wrong. 🎶

“After 200 years of expansion, democracy’s growth in the world has stalled. A handful of democracies like Venezuela and Hungary are backsliding into authoritarianism. And even in established Western democracies, voters are losing faith in democratic institutions and norms.

That has left us and scholars who study democracy obsessed with a set of questions. Is this all just a blip, or is democracy in real trouble? Are the oldest and sturdiest democracies, like those of Europe and the United States, really as safe as they seem? And why would people voluntarily dismantle their own democracy from within?

No one knows the answers for sure. But we’re starting to figure them out and it’s not all good news.” – Max Fisher & Amanda Taub, NYTimes

At times, I have been reminded of a great little ditty from a favourite dark musical theatre production and Tim Burton film – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street!

🎶 There’s no place like London! 🎶

Some would suggest many of our national problems are the result of a greater disconnect between, the wealthy and powerful ‘elite’ in our national capital, and the average working (poor) man and woman. Divisive identity politics is ‘making hay while the sun shines’ online.

As Alex Pentland suggests in this article To Rescue Democracy, Go Outside:

“When we interact through social media, we self-identify and seek out like opinions. In real life, we have less control over that selection—we never know who we’ll run into. Physical interactions are also very powerful. They are much better at changing opinions than digital media. Studies show such interactions produce better learning outcomes, a greater chance of reaching consensus, and greater satisfaction in workplace teams.

So what would happen if the way we interacted with each other forced us to mix with people of different groups? If we didn’t allow ourselves to dive ever deeper into self-reinforcing groups? What would happen if we mixed primarily through that quaint and old-fashioned technique, namely moving about in our physical environment, encountering opinions and perspectives that we did not pre-select? Could we counter the devil’s brew of single-community media combined with physical segregation? My research at MIT strongly suggests that the answer is yes. In businesses, on the street, and in peer groups, ideas are shaped more by face-to-face interaction than by digital media….With enough mixing, the old factions, with their conflicting sacred beliefs, might fade away and a more productive community dialogue could emerge.

So the next time you get mad at a tweet, or are upset by a news item about the growing inequality in our country, turn off your computer or TV, get up, and go talk to someone. For real.”

I have previously highlighted the issues of hybrid threats, black propaganda, Cambridge Analytica and the impact of data analytics companies on elections and democratic society – which I explored in my thesis (by accident to some extent). This post may be considered a companion piece to that previous post, and an attempt to offer a concrete and creative solution to the issue(s) raised previously.

See also, this Guardian piece by Cass Sunstein on the problem with The Daily Me:

“The Daily Me is an enemy of democracy. Representative government depends on shared experiences, common knowledge and a host of unanticipated, unchosen encounters. All too often, information cocoons become echo chambers, which make mutual understanding impossible and which promote dogmatism, polarisation and the fragmentation of society.

The simplest explanation for the dangers comes from an old finding in social science, which goes by the name of “group polarisation”. When like-minded people get together, and speak and listen only to one another, they usually end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.

If group members begin with a certain point of view on, say, immigration, climate change or international trade, their internal discussions will make them more extreme. The rise of the Daily Me helps to explain apparently intractable political divisions in the UK, the US, France and elsewhere. It also helps account for some of the most intense forms of political enmity, not excluding terrorism.

What can be done? A clue comes from an obscure US constitutional doctrine, where the supreme court has ruled that public streets and parks must be kept open to the public for “expressive activity”.

In the most prominent case, from 1939, the court stated: “Wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and time out of mind, have been used for the purposes of assembly, communicating thought between citizens, and discussing public questions. Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens.”

This public forum doctrine, as it is called, is meant to serve three purposes. It increases the likelihood that citizens will encounter diverse points of view – including serious complaints and concerns – even if they did not choose that encounter. Some of those encounters will affect people, perhaps in enduring ways.

It also ensures that speakers can have access to a wide array of people who walk the streets and use the parks. If they stop and listen, they may well hear people’s arguments about such issues as inequality, education, taxes, pollution and crime; they will also learn about the nature and intensity of views held by their fellow citizens.

In addition, the public forum creates an opportunity for shared exposure to diverse speakers with diverse views and complaints. In a city or town, many people will be simultaneously exposed to the same views and complaints: they will see them together at the same time. Anyone who has been to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London – an area where public speeches and debates have been encouraged since the mid-1800s, when protests and demonstrations took place in the park – will understand the important role of public forums in a functioning democracy.”

Journalists such as Carole Cadwalladr continue to pursue and publish the unfolding saga, particularly as it relates to the Brexit referendum and campaign. Most recently, drawing attention to the announcement by Vote Leave admitting to their fraudulent activity. We are now told, by the Electoral Commission, that further investigation into this is ‘not in the public interest‘…think about that – an in depth investigation into the now ‘admitted’ fraudulent electoral campaign activity, which significantly affected our current national constitutional nightmare, is ‘not in the public interest’!?!

Corruption and complacency.”

The question remains, how can we effectively combat such interference in our democratic processes and society?

Is technology hurting democracy? And can technology help save democracy?

The Democracy Festival

Democracy festivals began following Olof Palme, a Swedish education minister’s attempt in 1968, to open national grassroots dialogue on political matters. Began with only a few hundred ‘attendees’/listeners, this event conducted by one man on the back of a flatbed truck, predates the famous ‘hippy‘ festival Woodstock.

🎶 American Oxygen 🎶

The Swedish event, now known as Almedalen Week, and past its 50th year – seems to be going strong.

Almedalen Spirit:

“Almedalen Week is an unusual combination of political summit and openness. However, it is also associated with an informal atmosphere, intimacy, discussion, democracy, manoeuvring, seminars and further education and training.

The parliamentary political parties are at the heart of Almedalen Week. Their participation, with seminars, press conferences and speeches from Almedalen, forms the basis of the event. However, other events are at least as important.”

Since this Swedish start, the concept has flourished in the Nordic region in our current decade, and has sprung up elsewhere – such as the Baltic region i.e. Estonia’s ‘rock festival of words’, Latvia‘s ‘Conversation festivalLAMPA, Denmark‘s Folkemodet, and the wider EU.

🎞Latvian Democracy/TedxRiga🎞

This NY Times article considers the benefits of the Danish Folkemodet (The People’s Meeting), founded in 2011:

Here, the young, the old and the in-betweens have frank debates about the state of their democracy, holding forth over hot dogs and beer, ducking in and out of tents to hear speeches on issues both profound and personal, and, perhaps, helping to find solutions to problems in their society.
The gathering is held far from Copenhagen, the capital, to incubate the casual meetings between politicians and their constituents. Danes say that Folkemodet disconnects the media filter between people in power and the rest of the populace, shifting the political debate from “likes” on social media to the spoken word and face-to-face encounters.

At Folkemodet, there’s an unwritten rule: Questions can bite, but the overall atmosphere shouldn’t. The language is far removed from the vitriol permeating social media. So members of the public can challenge any politician who shows up.

“That’s what’s so unique here,” said Hans Helgren, an off-duty police officer who got to question the minister of justice on crime prevention. “Normally, I would never meet him. He’s packed away in Parliament behind so many people.”

The chief executive of the scandal-hit Danske Bank found himself in the hot seat when he attended an open-mic event to answer “anything.”

Danske Bank had made headlines recently when a newspaper reported that the bank had allowed Russian money laundering and then had failed to alert the authorities immediately when senior management discovered the misconduct. Danes pay some of the world’s highest taxes to sustain their welfare state and have little tolerance for tax evasion and disrespect for rules.

In a survey of last year’s Folkemodet, 82 percent of the participants said they had gained new knowledge on political issues, and 62 percent said that the festival had inspired them to become more active in politics.

Amid Denmark’s homogeneity, the festival provided a safe space to hash out differences. In one tent, 40 people listened to a judge, a lawyer and an IBM representative explore the pros and cons of having robots support or even supplement judges in the courtroom.

In another, about 100 people followed an emotional and sometimes good-humored debate on a potential age limit on male circumcision. The participants were a rabbi, a Muslim member of Parliament and a former porn star.

Lillan Kempf, a doctor who had traveled seven hours to get here, said that at Folkemodet she got a chance to share deep concerns about her hospital’s psychiatric ward with a member of Parliament. Money’s being wasted, she said.

“He agreed with what I said — that was great,” she said. “It’s so important that they hear what’s moving among the people.”

Her husband, Richard Kristensen, called Folkemodet “a fun fair” of “something you hate and something you love:” lots of talking about politics plus live music, comedy and plenty of cute towns and artisan workshops to get away from all the talking.

“People wouldn’t come if it was only about politics,” he said.”

The Danish incarnation has spawned an activity based company, We do democracy. The potential of the concept has been explored in detail.

Some further detail from the World Economic Forum, about the Danish example:

“As well as talking politics, many business leaders attend to discuss things like infrastructure, climate change, energy and social issues.

Polite debate

Despite the chilled-out ambiance, festival-goers don’t shy away from asking politicians difficult questions.

In 2016, Justice Minister Søren Pape Poulsen was forced to defend harsh new laws for immigrant “ghettos”.”

🎶 The Muppets Tackle Environmental Concerns 🎶

These events have become so successful, the EU has started supporting the effort and has developed their own version – Democracy Alive, hosted in the Netherlands and focused around the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections.

🎞 Democracy Alive 🎞

Not to be confused with the Jubel Festival, held in Brussels. Further, they have become so popular, a European consultancy firm focused on democracy has been created to export & support the concept, and a consortium group of sorts, including all current Nordic and Baltic festivals, has been created in recent years. The concept is now being exported to Africa and South Korea. The group has a new online platform. Democracy training workshops are also held in Copenhagen, to spread the concept further.

🎞Zakia Elvang on Democracy Festivals🎞

“We believe that #democracy is about much more than democratic institutions and sets of written rules and laws. It is a culture that has to be nourished. A key to enabling this kind of culture is the creation of spaces and platforms where people can physically get together, talk to each other, listen, get inspired, exchange opinions and debate their ideas. This is the core idea and essence of #democracyfestivals” – Democracy Festivals Facebook post

Nordic inspiration & some policy experience = Earth Jam?

I have, previously, looked to the Nordic region for inspiration for creative policy suggestions and ideas. In my extra-curricular work for a foreign policy hackathon event in London, I came up with a concept for a UK hosted event. Earth Jam, combining my experience of the Security Jam (now known as Debating Security Plus) event hosted by the Brussels based think tank, Friends of Europe, and the great need for the UK to be more proactive in meeting EU wide climate goals, especially given the post-Brexit referendum context in 2016.

🎞 What is a Security Jam? 🎞

As leader of a group of students/young people working on the proposal for my concept, we were seeking to spin the dire ‘trade first’ Theresa May (Tory) government approach to solving the Brexit problem. We wanted to try to make it appear a positive policy approach, though we felt in reality that it was a somewhat delusional approach. That took quite some work and creativity, to turn the current Tory reductive and narrow-minded trade approach into an aspirational, creative, and modern approach. So, we argued strongly in our materials, for the ‘business case’ for such an international event…how would such an event benefit the UK economy, whilst positively reaching out to partners and leaders in this area in the EU and beyond.

Though we didn’t complete this project, due to difficulties with the organisation of the hackathon event, I took this concept and lobbied for the inclusion of the suggestion that the UK should follow the Nordic lead (in regard to climate security and migration) – during my work on the DebSec+ event in 2017. It was subsequently included in my theme moderator’s statement (Hal Bidlack, American Security Project), in the final published 10 recommendations report (see ‘Theme 6‘, pg. 101-102). I have since taken the original Earth Jam concept, combined it with the concept of these democracy festivals, and offered it as my proposal in the application for a Santander Universities Georgetown University 2 week study abroad event focused on social inclusion and the global economy, in 2019. It is also worth noting, I’ve also previously worked on and submitted plans for an academic summer school/festival idea I had. It focuses on a troubling gap in what is currently offered, and addresses the issue of feminist backlash online, alongside performance art protest scholar-activist methods and considers humour as method. It is possible this may ultimately get blended into the UK democracy festival concept, or vice versa. Both concepts are related to my PhD thesis, and address some issues raised.

As I have previously argued, in my policy work with entities in the EU, I think the UK has a lot to learn from the Nordic region – especially in regard to environmental practices, and now, in regard to this democracy concept, post-Brexit referendum.

A UK democracy festival…?

The ‘festival’ is something Britain is particularly good at, fields and urban centres all over the country have hosted music, book, food, and beer festivals, year after year. Glastonbury is arguably the most famous, and the most embedded in our popular culture. Perhaps, followed closely by the Hay Book and Edinburgh Fringe festivals. But locally, Leeds has a thriving festival scene; Leeds (and Reading) music festival, the International Festival, and the Leeds West Indian (Chapeltown) carnival (2nd only to the Notting Hill one, in the whole of Europe, running since 1967).

These festivals draw international interest and attention. With this established heritage of festivals, the current divisive nature of politics, and the problems with media bias increasing in recent years – we should be able to gather interest in a national democracy festival.

🎶 Has the state of the Nation got you vexed, like Akala in this early decade banger…? 🎶

An opportunity for our political representatives to address citizen questions and concerns, in real-time, and (more importantly) an opportunity for citizens to take part, question, learn, and engage in political life – constructively. Citizens of different backgrounds, ages, religions, and races, can gather for food, music, arts, training, and politics. Representatives, of any political persuasion, who claim to support democracy and wish to see grassroots engagement from citizens (including those who call for overthrowing the elitist, adversarial, and archaic political system), those who claim to seek change, should all be able to get behind such a regular event and truly democratic celebration. If they claim to be against such a gathering, we can surely be convinced of their true motivations…misinformation, polarisation, division, and a weakened and fractured nation.

As this Scientific American article states:

“Sociodiversity is as important as biodiversity. It fuels not only collective intelligence and innovation, but also resilience—the ability of our society to cope with unexpected shocks. Reducing sociodiversity often also reduces the functionality and performance of an economy and society. This is the reason why totalitarian regimes often end up in conflict with their neighbors. Typical long-term consequences are political instability and war, as have occurred time and again throughout history. Pluralism and participation are therefore not to be seen primarily as concessions to citizens, but as functional prerequisites for thriving, complex, modern societies.

In summary, it can be said that we are now at a crossroads (see Fig. 2). Big data, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and behavioral economics are shaping our society—for better or worse. If such widespread technologies are not compatible with our society’s core values, sooner or later they will cause extensive damage. They could lead to an automated society with totalitarian features. In the worst case, a centralized artificial intelligence would control what we know, what we think and how we act. We are at the historic moment, where we have to decide on the right path—a path that allows us all to benefit from the digital revolution.”

In such precarious times, with hybrid threats and their various impacts on our core values, now more than ever we should all be able to truly celebrate our democracy and democratic values – together, as a nation, for a prosperous and safe future. It is not only Muppets, Sweeney Todd, and Alt-Right conspiracy theorists who believe we need to ‘drain the swamp’ – our political infrastructure and processes, in the UK and USA, are not fit for purpose, in such a technological & hyper social world. The hyper-masculinity of the adversarial style is causing havoc in relation to Brexit. We need more radical acts of kindness, and opening spaces for listening, as the response to Jacinda Ardern’s leadership has shown. We need to disrupt the stranglehold major news corps in traditional media have over the national narrative.

At the very least, these institutions need the support a democracy festival can provide…a shift in culture. This may also enable a shift in how our politics is conducted and practiced (voting reform..?).

I’ll end with another musical theatre number, steeped in London stereotypes, because…why not? Fun fact: two of my elderly relatives (one sadly passed) worked behind the scenes on this film, and others, at Shepperton Studios. There’s a little ditty, they’re singing in the city…!

🎶 Oom Pah-Pah, Oom Pah-Pah! 🎶


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