REFLECTIONS ON A DEMOCRACY CONFERENCE IN ALBANIA

In January 2016, I was contacted by the KRIIK organization, to take part in, and be a speaker at, a conference devoted to direct democracy in Albania.  I guess.  To be honest, I never understood it well.

First of all, I didn’t even understand why I was contacted.  Of course, I was flattered (who doesn’t like to be told that a total stranger thinks you might have something useful to say to a roomful of different strangers?).  Second of all, I thought “Why am I being contacted by people interested in democracy? What do I have to say about government, democracy, or political systems?”  Happily I have friends who are wiser than me, and when I talked about this conference with them – and my own questions of inadequacy – they said (cheerfully, lovingly) (something like) “Are you an idiot?  You’ve been fighting government day and night for a year and a half, to protect public interest, and what is public engagement, if not that?”  Oh right.  THAT.

THAT is just what I do.  When I wake up at 5 am, 4 am, 6 am or 3 am, unable to sleep.  Shocked out of sleep by just how “to shit” the world is going.  How can I sleep?   Is it better to pull the covers over your head?  (Oh yes, most certainly, some days)  Or is it better to just surrender to stress, and get up, and DO something?  That wins, the other days.

If a vague attachment to firing off emails to anyone who might have some capability of doing something, just something, anything, constitutes public engagement, then I could be a poster child, it’s true.  The weird thing of my situation is that sometimes people actually answer my emails, and then I have to go off and do something as well.  Sometimes I have to speak to journalists.  Sometimes I have to appear before panels of foreign dignitaries.  Sometimes – more often than you would think (or I would) I have to appear on live television, speaking in a language I barely understand.  I hate all of this.  I would much rather stay home and knit socks.

But knitting socks won’t stop me from waking up, in a panic, before the sun rises.  Knitting socks won’t knit my world together, anymore than the endless billions of socks knitted by my Malësore female kin and predecessors ever fixed anything.  Knitting socks won’t fix anything.  So instead I write.  I write essays, like this, which you may now be reading.  I write to politicians, and funders, and lawyers, I write to people, and friends, in the end, I end up doing a different kind of knitting.  I’ve just realized.  I knit social fabric together.  Golly.  Who would have thunk it? (though socks are probably a more satisfying end-product)

So I guess I AM irritating enough, with my endless emails and messages, to justify being invited to a conference.  Alright fine.  I accepted.  You must realize this already, or there would be no essay.

But what did I find when I got there?

Well, for one thing, I have a very American – or possibly personal – sense of politeness.  In America, we would call this “You gots to dance with them what brought you.”  I.e., if you are invited to talk to a room of strangers, the least you can do is listen to all the other strangers first. Call it a certain rude sense of reciprocity.  Thus I sat through some 10 hours of speeches the first day of the conference, and several other hours the next day.

Do I resent this?  Well of course, a little.  Except.  Except.  Every time I’ve sat through some well-meaning, well-intentioned . . . symposium, I’ve always learned something.  In the case of the KRIIK conference, my head was fair exploding, after the first talks by well- meaning international ambassadors.

The conference was organized in a series of several (many, uncountable) panels.  The first were the internationals – the media showed up for this.  The EU ambassador said heart-felt things about public spirit, the Swiss ambassador did the same, some German did likewise.  The American ambassador actually touched off a national scandal, right before my eyes, by including reference in his speech to specific corrupt transgressions of the Albanian government (which I gather he then spent several weeks defending).  Whatever.

After that, there was a series of foreign experts, who amazingly actually talked in practical terms.  What is democracy?  Where did it come from, historically?  How do we talk about it today?  How do we “do” democracy today, around the world and how could we?  Why does it work, and when doesn’t it?  Can we only really wait, sheep-like, between elections, or are there other things we could do?  What is Albanian law like for direct involvement?  For referenda?  The state of California, in the USA, regularly includes 10-15 direct vote issues on their election ballots.  Currently, they’re planning a vote to secede from the USA, on account of hating Trump.  The Swiss vote on everything.

The conference threw out ideas, everywhere, every 10 seconds. The conference – if, like me you sat through all of it – was a gigantic mind-fuck, gorgeous.  It blew your mind.  Quite literally, in the sense of exploding.  So many ideas.  So much idealism.  So many practical things no one knows about (who knew the government had created local parliamentary outposts as Albana Shylla told us?  NO ONE!)  So much sense that people must determine their future.  And could.  And can.  And are trying.

Halfway through the conference, I was flying like a drunk on ideas, on idealism.  WE CAN DO THIS, I wanted to jump on my chair and scream.  Of COURSE, we’d all rather stay home, but together, we could each just do a little, just TALK to each other, and FIX all this SHIT. . . We can DO this, just by being reasonably interested . . .

Then came the last hour of the conference.

In the last hour of the conference, the political parties arrived.  Actually, I think they arrived during my speech, upsetting everyone, and making a mess. As a well-trained speaker (although I’m not) might have done, I paused my speech, waited for them to sit.  Asked from my microphone “a jeni mirë tani?”  They smiled at me, and I continued.

Then it was their turn.  Honestly, my jaw hung open.

The LSI party member quoted Donald Trump.  As if any thinking person, anywhere, would ever think Trump a respectable reference.  “When I enter the White House, the people will come with me.” And the LSI party candidate, with all the savvy of a 6-year old added: ”And it will be the same after the next elections in Albania.”  O really?  Did I miss it, or are hoi polloi really being welcomed open armed to either Trump Tower, or the White House?  Are cocktails being handed out? Or – if the whole country is coming, Budweisers and depth-chargers?  Either the Socialist Party or the Democratic Party candidate (they were indistinguishable, expect for spectrum-variance, from smugness, to pleading) said: “Of course we COULD have referendum in Albania [in which the populace votes on actual issues] but of course they would only ever be advisory (so we could ignore them).”  After all – the Albanian people cannot possibly make decisions – they are too stupid.  My paraphrase.  “That’s why they have us,” he said “Their elected officials.  To make decisions for them.”  He said “Just imagine – if you asked the Albanian people to vote on taxes, they’d just never have any at all!”  So he sat back, fatly smiling.  “So you see, we have to make the decisions.”

And yes, that is how it was.  You know, honestly, I might bring back the guillotine.  Well, probably not.  But these people sorely tempt me.  No, on reflection I might.  They deserve it.

16 hours of idealism, and practicality, 16 hours of examples from other developed nations, 16 hours of ideas, I sat through.  They didn’t.  They didn’t even bother to attend.

They just roll in, last minute, with fancy suits and nasty haircuts.  And they are even too stupid to know – we’ve been thinking, these last two days, we’ve been learning.

We the people, are thinking.  And learning.

Your days are numbered, haircuts, smug confidents.  Mostly likely we’ll let you keep your heads.  Your brains, we clearly can’t vouch for.  But we hope you find them.  They may someday do you some good.

It seems pretty clear you have nothing to offer us.  Dead or alive.  Only the suits you stand up in.

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