Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Reflections from Cuba - Civic Responsibility

January 23, 2013:

In a previous post, I compared and contrasted Cuba and Canada in terms of the opportunities for achieving one's potential through access to information, ideas, etc., noting that in Cuba the opportunities are almost non-existent, while sadly, in our country, there are those who choose not to avail themselves of the almost boundless access to ways to develop themselves.

Today I want to consider people who have availed themselves, used the resources available, yet choose to close themselves off from any meaningful participation in our society. While I readily acknowledge that there are so many who do so much to enrich our society, I worry about the willfully ignorant who abdicate what I consider to be everyone's duties as citizens: to be informed, to participate either directly or indirectly in civic debate, and most importantly, to vote.

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, a view to which I wholeheartedly subscribe. To live only to fulfill one's basic needs and instincts is to exist at the animal level, and while we of course are animals, our potential is much greater than other creatures with whom we share that designation. And because we live in community with others, that potential has the richest chance of realization when we strive together to improve the collective and not just ourselves.

While I have written about and acknowledged the complexity of issues and challenges that we all face and do not pretend to have either the knowledge or the expertise to tackle them, I firmly believe that informed discussion and debate is instrumental in finding solutions. To leave that discussion and decision-making in the hands of those who claim to have the interests of everyone at heart is to betray all of us. To say that one is not political or interested in politics is to turn one's back on one's fellow citizens. To do so is to only live for the self, perhaps the greatest 'sin' of all.

Despite my apparently pessimistic tone here, I do believe that given the right opportunities for engagement, many will rise to the challenges we face. For example, the Occupy Movement, while it seems to have lost its momentum, demonstrated that the right campaign can tap into and harness the deep discontent dwelling within our souls over the status quo. As described by writer Mark Leiren-Young in the December issue of The Walrus, the movement began as a guerrilla campaign by Abuster founder Kalle Lasn with a cryptic poster depicting "a petite ballerina striking an arabesque and Photoshopped onto the back of the iconic Wall Street bull, a phalanx of police in riot gear emerging from the tear gas behind them.... Over the ballerina, in red letters, hung the words 'What is our demand?" Printed below was "September 17th" and the words "Bring tent" followed by the Twitter hastag #ocuppywallstreet." The rest, as they say, is history.

As I write these words in Cuba, I have learned that eleven EU countries, including France, Germany, Greece and Spain are now preparing to enact the Tobin tax, something vehemently fought against by entrenched interests, that will impose a miniscule tax on currency transactions and other financial transactions. It is a good and encouraging response to the depredations wrought by reckless and herdless speculation, and I cannot help but believe it is also in reaction to an outraged European citizenry that has grown increasingly restive under the burden they have been expected to bear for problems not largely of their making. Interesting, the Tobin tax was precisely what Mallet Lasn had in mind with his Occupy poster.

So change for the better is possible, given the right conditions, stimulation, awareness and passion. But it cannot and will not occur in a vacuum.

John Kennedy's best remembered excerpt from his Inaugural Address is the following:

Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

Perhaps being engaged in the issues of our times and participating accordingly is the best way to most benefit our country and our world today.

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