Friday, March 30, 2012

The dictatorship of the ignorant and mediocre

A Facebook contact recently showed a link to a Youtube video of a speech by Sir Ken Robinson. It was a fascinating view on the state of the US educational system, that might very well be valid to many other countries – in any case, to The Netherlands. Essentially, Sir Kenneth says that the educational system is failing because its structure is still the same as when it was drawn up in the 19th century. And now it is out of touch with the way young people are open to absorb information and knowledge in our media dominated society. I will not go into a discussion about our educational system, because that is not the scope of this blog. But this video was eye opening in some other aspects too.

Very early in my study Political Sciences at the Leiden University, a lecturer asked my class to write an essay on the origins of the Northern Ireland conflict. As might be expected, we all wrote that the catholic population being a minority feels suppressed by the protestant population and the British authorities. Wrong, our lecturer said. The roots of the Ulster conflict are not religion based, but have economic roots, so he claimed. The Roman Catholic population was poor, while the protestants had better jobs and higher incomes. If this would have been the other way round, it might have been very likely that we would not have seen a conflict at all in Northern Ireland. So, what does this tell us? Our teacher wanted us to learn to think about issues from a different angle. To be investigative and to learn to draw our own conclusions. Frankly, it took years before I understood what he was trying to do here.

These are visions that do not follow established patterns, not go by the book, but that are the result of original thinking. Looking at a situation from new angles, that most of us would not be able to do. Out of the box thinking, and drawing up conclusions based on one's own creative intelligence, instead of pointing to what others have said and written before. That is the essence of academic thinking. That kind of problem assessment is what we need in our societies. Too long have we lived in a world where decisions at both on the political and the administrative level are made on sub par intelligent level.

This is very apparent when you look at the political and administrative processes on the local community level. Decision makers and politicians are not capable of original thoughts, but mimic the conventions they know, rely on what they hear from others, or what they can easily adopt from media sources. That is because their education in The Netherlands is at often at so called higher professional level (HBO) here, an eduction system that focusses on practices and theory, and that is one step below the academic world. In itself that would not be wrong, although we miss the academic way of assessing situations. Addditional problem here is that the quality of HBO education has gradually slipped to middle professional education (MBO). And that failing level of insight and intelligence is spreading to all levels in our society. The reason is obvious. When you are a brilliant student or an excellent professional, you do not settle for a position at an average local community. Your ambitions are higher. And rightly so.

On short notice there is little we can do with the quality of civil servants and with managers in subsidized organisations. But we can have a fresh look at our political representatives. Now, what I am going to propose here takes courage and it requires to look at our political system in the western world from a different angle. Like our educational system, most western political systems developed in the 19th and early 20th century. During those years the level democratic participation expanded from a selected group of nobility and 'well to do' citizens to all men and women above a certain age. We decided to choose our representatives, because for practical reasons we could not all directly participate in the democratic process, like in the old Greek democratic society. Parliament, senate, house of commons, whatever you call it, were too far away, and we were with too many to start with. So, we trusted by vote those people we valued most. These representatives were often university educated, brilliant and dedicated politicians who's entire lives were focused to serve their voters and their societies. The same can be said for civil servants. But now, 100 years later, we still rely on that system. No matter that our democracies are not evolving or expanding anymore. The perspectives and challenges are gone. The system has slowed down to a stop. Many citizens do not believe in it anymore, or simply just don't care. The ambitions of the people we were used to trust and rely on are now only a shade of the qualities of the men and woman we trusted for decades. And society suffered. Decisions are made and executed on a mediocre level.

The political systems have gone bankrupt, and it is very apparent here in The Netherlands, where equal representation in parliament and too many political parties fail to provide a working majority that can form a government. And too many politicians see their position in parliament as a step in their career, and move away as soon as something nice comes along. But it is not unique to my country. Take a look at the USA, and there too we witness a system falling apart. Huge amounts of money are wasted every four years to get people elected, only half of those who are allowed to vote will make the trip to the polling station, and in the end, half of the population does not accept the outcome of the elections. Something needs to be done.

I argue that our political system has evolved into a virtual democracy, that is in fact nothing more than the dictatorship of the ignorant and mediocre. Shouldn't it be better to trust our administrative and political processes to highly intelligent and capable people who are appointed to do so instead of getting a mandate by election? After all, in our information based society we have access to different media and possibilities that guarantee our basic political rights. And I'm sure we can come up with all kinds of new tools we can use to control these appointed technocrats. Just think of how inspiring it can be when we, the citizens, could use the internet as a tool to express our demands to the technocrat representatives. It may look like an ongoing referendum, but it can combine a modern way of political participation with the quality and intelligence we desperately need. The events in Northern Africa have shown us the power of new media. So, do we have the courage to try something new here? But I fear that it will never happen. Because in order to achieve this, to make huge and fundamental steps that will affect our society, lives and the way we look at established systems, we need the cooperation of all who are in power now. And I know where that will end. They lack the will to sacrifice their own positions, and will not understand that it would be in the best interest of all to give up their old fashioned structures. And we, we will just stay where we are.