Leaders annihilating our normalcy for their own convenience

Sheridan Whiteside is The Man Who Came to Dinner, in an old Broadway play (and movie) of that name. He's a celebrity asked to a relatively normal family's home for dinner, due to his renown. But he slips on the ice outside, breaks a leg, and moves in to recover, for endless weeks, during which he commandeers the services of the entire household, utterly disrupts their normal routines and, above all, is totally oblivious to his impact. He is magnificently absorbed in his own needs, comfort and, er, security.

And so we come galumphingly to G-day. What is striking, now that we get to see yon leaders in the flesh (on TV), is not the vast, largely arbitrary disruption they have caused here, but their obliviousness to it. They are the men (and women) who came to dinner. They've annihilated much of our normal life for the past week and coming weekend, for their safety and convenience. Yet it never occurs to them to apologize or express regret.

It would have, you can be sure, if they took over someone's table at a restaurant or seat on a plane. Maybe there's insensitivity in numbers. What we have here is a mass failure of empathy.

I hasten to add this is not all due to 9/11. The cloistering tendency was evident before that. A year earlier, at a leaders' summit in Quebec City, the whole beautiful old walled city was walled off. Terror is a useful excuse to get even more disconnected but the disconnecting was already under way.

Why is this a concern? Because it's a symptom of democratic decline. Democracy isn't about elections. There have been lots of undemocratic societies with elections. It's about a state of mind and a relationship between governors and governed. This is exactly what looks preposterous in Toronto now. What is the sign of the breakdown in the relationship? Police everywhere, to protect the governors from the people. That's how it looks. I'm not saying that's what it is, yet. But it's amazing that they don't even react to the optics of the situation: i.e. a temporary police state. To us onlookers, it's the experience of being disenfranchised. You don't count, you suddenly have no rights. You can't park in your spot or take your kids to school. No one asked us, at most they gathered us and told us. It's what you feel when you're arrested: that it's a free country until they decide it's not.

Maybe this is the kind of insidious pattern financier George Soros was fretting about this week, with his East European sensitivity to faux democracy and democratic decline. He was talking about economic policy in Europe but he concluded, "Democracy itself could be at risk."

I reject the idea that the redeeming value of these events lies in face-to-face contact of the leaders. That's exactly the rarefied environment they need less of. What they need is more face time with mundane realities. One local says, "Our school desperately needs a paint job. But they spend money on a water cannon." Multiply that by a lot and eventually you get a crisis of democratic legitimacy.

I know big events entail dilemmas, even the World Cup. There's lots to critique in South Africa now, including abuses of the legal system and funding that could go to dire needs. But the World Cup also has moments of beauty, joy, pride and a sense of the "we" in human life. And it's unlikely the funding would go elsewhere. The real question is: Is it better to do nothing or do the World Cup? I'd say it's better to do the World Cup. But is it better to do nothing than do the Security Cup, a.k.a. the G8/G20? I'd say: Absolutely.

Could it have been worse? Well, The Man Who Came to Dinner ends on Sheridan Whiteside's departure. But outside, he falls again, breaks the other leg, and is hauled back inside. Imagine if they all were stranded here by, say, an earthquake, with no sign they'd ever leave.

 

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