tirsdag 18. mai 2010

What do we teach our children about democracy?

On May 13, the Ukrainian internet newspaper Ukrainska Pravda published a text I wrote on what models of democracy we show our children. Here you can read an English versjon of the text.

Not so long ago, the Norwegian state broadcaster (NRK) started making a news program for child viewers. The hostess of the program explains the latest domestic and world news to children in simple words, and the concept of child news might be regarded as a result of the new politics of childhood in the last three or four decades. In the Western world children are more and more regarded as independent and competent individuals, who are not merely passive recipients or onlookers to the actions of adults, but rather actively creating their own social worlds. So in this setting of taking children seriously, what do competent Norwegian and Ukrainian children learn about politics and democracy today?

On Wednesday 28 April, the NRK news program for children reported on two major events (http://www1.nrk.no/nett-tv/klipp/632329 ). First, there was the historical signing of an agreement for a new Barents Sea border between Norway and Russia, and thus the end of a 40 year long dispute. An expert commentator praised the agreement as a wise compromise that will serve Norway’s interests. Second, there was footage of Ukrainian deputies throwing eggs and smoke bombs during a session in the Ukrainian Parliament, with the program hostess explaining that the reason for the quarrelling was a disagreement between deputies over a deal with Russia.

Even though the incomparable contexts for the Norwegian-Russian and the Ukraininan-Russian deals were not explained in greater detail, Norwegian children were presented with at least two important lessons about politics in democratic countries. First, that stable and friendly relations with neighbouring countries are both an important and desired goal in (Norwegian) geopolitics. Second, that fistfights and throwing eggs and smoke bombs are not the normal or viable way to solve controversial or difficult political issues. Being a Norwegian childhood researcher (of Ukrainian descent), I am indeed biased when I claim that the model of democratic processes disseminated to Norwegian children through this news program is a healthy model for the future politicians and voters of Norway.

Now, what do competent Ukrainian children learn about politics today? What kind of morality of politics and models of democratic processes are disseminated to future politicians and voters of Ukraine? My answer would be a model in which political controversies are solved by unconstitutional bargains and undemocratic means of protest; basically, that democracy in Ukraine does not work. Thus, I do not agree with Lincoln E. Mitchell in his claim that as long as ‘violence is restricted to parliament, it is a good sign for Ukrainian democracy” (The Faster Times, April 29). Violence is a symptom of a society moving away from democracy, whether it is violence in parliament or on the streets, whether as controlled by those in power or as a weapon of the weak.

Comparing the level of democracy in Norway and Ukraine is of course difficult, since the historical and geopolitical realities in which the political systems have evolved are incommensurable. Throwing eggs and smoke bombs in the Ukrainian Parliament might well be regarded as a justified act of resistance to an unconstitutional rule in a Ukrainian context. But if Robert Coles is right when he in his book ‘The Political Life of Children’ claims that a nation’s politics becomes a child’s everyday psychology, then there is reason to worry. Then the acts of politicians in parliament have significance far beyond the present political realm. And if we assume that children most easily capture the form of discussions, and only partly understand their complex content, the situation is even more serious.

In order to get a picture of what impressions Ukrainian children do have of contemporary politics in Ukraine, we should of course listen to what they themselves have to say. As part of my research on children of Ukrainian labor migrants, I initiated in 2008 a literary contest for Ukrainian school children together with the International Institute of Education, Culture and Connections to the Diaspora (MIOK), at the Lviv Polytechnic University. All the 156 texts and drawings that we received were published in two separate books, and these books should be obligatory reading for the country’s political and financial elites.
There is a Norwegian proverb saying that you will hear the truth from children and drunken men. I do not know what drunken men have to say about political life in Ukraine, but the truth Ukrainian children tell about the democratic processes in Ukraine is alarming. The most evident feature that we can extract from the children’s texts in general is a total distrust in politicians and the authorities.

The authorities is basically seen as a corrupt gang of self-interested deputies, who do not serve the country, but themselves and their own pockets. As Andrij, 14 years old, writes:

I watch TV to see what is going on in the parliament. The deputies’ actions and behavior do not coincide with their reelection promises. Nobody of them thinks. They do not care about Ukraine, nor about its nation. … In school we are taught how to live, and not to manipulate the truth. But by what laws do our deputies live? Who taught them?

A timely question, when we think about last week’s events.

Interestingly, in the texts the children do not separate between different fractions nor between opposition and parties in power. The distrust is towards politicians in general. The reasons for this distrust, whether a legacy of Soviet times, a national characteristic or whatever, is of secondary importance. What is important is that the current state of affairs in Ukrainian politics makes a 17-year old girl named Iryna ask: “Does the state need us, the children?” Let the Constitution-breakers and the egg-throwers alike answer that question!
Does it matter what models and moralities you teach children about politics and democracy? Of course it does, because they are the future politicians and voters. Because eggs and smoke bombs are not part of the inventory when building democracy, whatever the stakes. Unconstitutional agreements and laws must be fought with votes in parliamentary sessions and elections, in courts and by mass demonstrations. But never with fists, eggs or smoke. Why? Because your children, the future generation of Ukraine, need a healthy model of democratic processes, which will be a healthy model for democratic processes when it is their turn to govern. Alternatively, chickens and their eggs will have a prominent place in a politically divided country like Ukraine for generations to come. The children understand that. They actually understand more than we think. As Iryna asks: “If we, the children, understand, then what does it take for adults to come to the same conclusion?”And maybe Ukrainian children should also have their own news program, in which the host or hostess would make an effort to explain the stupidness of adults.