Monday, June 13, 2005

Toward the end of a report on the World Social Forum in Brazil, Larry Lessig reflects on some of the differences between Brazil and America, speaking of an appearance by culture minister (and popular musician) Gilberto Gil:

For a bit, I was terrified a riot would break out. There was no room to move. We were physically squeezed on all sides. I tried to imagine Donald Rumsfeld in the same situation. One or two police stood at the back, just in case. But the crowd was peaceful, just jubilant.

Just as Gil started to speak, however, a handful of masked protesters appeared out of nowhere and positioned themselves right up front, brandishing posters. They were attacking the government. They were attacking Gil. They were supporters of pirate radio. They wanted a third layer of freedom--free radio spectrum, in addition to free software and free culture--and the government had resisted them. It was hypocrisy, they screamed. I was sure it would turn ugly--until Gil did something unimaginable in U.S. political culture. He stopped, and he engaged them. He argued with them. He listened to their arguments. A deputy joined Gil in the argument. They paused to listen to the protesters argue back. They then responded again, and Gil slowly whittled the opposition down. Midway through all this, a kid wearing a white T-shirt stood up just in front of us. Emblazoned on the back was the slogan "This is what democracy looks like." Eventually the crowd rose in Gil's support. They wanted more music. The protestors yielded. Gil was asked to sing some songs. ...

We were finally pushed onto a golf cart and then into a government car, so he could escape. But even here, when someone knocked on Gil's window, he rolled it down and continued arguing. He yelled out his final words as his driver (a man with less patience than Gil) sped away. When the window was closed, and after a moment of silence, I tried to explain to Gil just how extraordinary that scene appeared to American eyes. I said that I could never imagine the equivalent in the United States, with anyone actually in power.

"Yes, I know," he said, smiling. America, he explained, has "important" people. "Here, we are just citizens."

Are we that far from de Tocqueville's America? -- or, when he visited that America, with its Knickerbockers and Yankee merchant princes in the north, and its regal planters in the south, did de Tocqueville have a blind spot?


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This almost reduced me to tears. We were once like that. No more.

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