Ben Okri: 'Citizens of the world, wake up. Unveil your eyes, ask questions, use your power.'
Beautiful speech by British novelist and poet Ben Okri (reprinted in the Guardian) on the need for active citizenship, as the solution to our current political blues (and reds and whites).
...The folly of nations is really the folly of its citizens. We may have expert demagogues and specialist politicians, we may have master manipulators and emotional bullies, but finally it is the citizen that chooses. Democracy is finally the surrendering of power to one kind of mesmerism or another. We should abandon for the moment the idea that people vote with their reason, with their heads. People vote often with their more primitive instincts, their deeper and sometimes unknown impulses. Which is why people are often surprised by what they have done, what they have voted for.
The more unaware citizens are, the easier is it for them to be led in directions that they thought they chose but didn’t really, because they did not know what they were doing. There is no mystery to how nations fail, how they collapse. It begins with the unawareness of citizens. It begins with the ignorance of the people.
The ignorance I speak of has nothing to do with education. It is quite common for educated people to be quite stupid about the highest goals for humanity. The ignorance I speak of has to do with a lack of understanding of the true consequences of our actions, our decisions and the destiny of our deeds.
In ancient Greece, where the idea of citizenship crystallised, citizenship was active. Individuals belonged to their cities. We have all seen how amazing people can be in cities and nations when they face a terrible crisis. I have heard how the character of New Yorkers became transformed for a while after 9/11. Normally remote New Yorkers became engaged, helpful and supportive. I saw it in London too in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Individuals responded with generosity. Volunteers multiplied overnight.
But it is not the visible crisis that determines the true health of nations in the long term. A nation is shaped during the stretches of invisible crisis: those periods when nothing seems to be happening, when our decisions do not seem to be momentous. I believe we have been in such an invisible crisis for some time.