Transforming talk of politics


Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh – originator of “Engaged Buddhism”

The last few months – be it via the UK’s Brexit vote, in US presidential campaigning or the Hungarian government’s demonising of refugees – have all made clear how badly our societies communicate their politics.

We don’t hear, let alone understand what other people are trying to say and they, in turn, are deaf to us and our ideas. The result is mutual incomprehension, mistrust and all the dangers of both. It’s hardly surprising so many people withdraw from political talk, or blank out politics completely.  This is a huge mistake, albeit an understandable one.

I am busy imagining a political project to campaign for radically better government systems supported by positive, or constructive, journalism. It is wildly ambitious but then it has to be with stakes so high – not least in terms of rampant social exclusion and the urgent need for radical climate-change action. The project whole will be an evolution of conclusions I drew in Fraudcast News – recast as calls to action. It will make the case for innovations requiring root-and-branch transformations to conventional politics. One would be to replace elected politicians as our main decision makers with juries of randomly selected groups of citizens. More of that in posts to come – today’s concern is communication.

To transform our politics – we need radically better ways of talking and listening to one another. Efforts to communicate better will be a guiding principle for both the project’s creation and its realisation.

That’s where the bald dude in the brown robes comes in – an extraordinary man called Thich Nhat Hanh. This Zen Buddhist Master has much to say about communication in his lifetime’s work in “Engaged Buddhism”. He coined the term in the 1950s, a time when his native Vietnamese stood confused and divided between Communism in the North and Capitalism in the South.

Nhat Hanh described Engaged Buddhism at length in 2008, during a rare return from exile to visit Hanoi and elsewhere. A major element concerns communication.

“When people cannot communicate they don’t understand each other or see the other’s suffering and there is no love, no happiness. War and terrorism are also born from wrong perceptions.

Terrorists think that the other side is trying to destroy them as a religion, as a way of life, as a nation. If we believe that the other person is trying to kill us then we will seek ways to kill the other person first in order not to be killed.

Fear, misunderstanding, and wrong perceptions are the foundation of all these violent acts. The war in Iraq, which is called anti-terrorist, has not helped to reduce the number of terrorists. In fact the number of terrorists is increasing all the time because of the war. In order to remove terrorism you have to remove wrong perceptions. We know very well that airplanes, guns, and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions.

Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions.

But our leaders are not trained in that discipline and they rely on the armed forces to remove terrorism.”

I have been hugely lucky to come across Nhat Hanh’s teachings over the last few years at his French monastery and in broadcast talks online. He has profoundly influenced the ways I consider both politics and journalism – very much for the better, I think.

Combining talk of politics and religion may not seem the smartest thing to do right now, not least in France, where I live. Yet I do it deliberately. Furthermore, Nhat Hanh explains in a recent book The Mindfulness Survival Kit that jiao, the Chinese and Vietnamese word for religion, means a tradition of teachings. In Eastern cultures, religion does not imply belief in God.

So why take a monk’s advice on politics? Thich Nhat Hanh is no ordinary monk.

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Against elections, the video

Excellent, clear, concise, pro-democracy video critique of elections by David Van Reybrouck. Makes the strong case for random selection of politicians and explains why we don’t have it today.

Equality by lot

A surprisingly militant video from David Van Reybrouck.

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Democracy talk – Episode 3: Brexit

Yoram Gat and Patrick Chalmers chew over the UK’s Brexit vote – the June 23 decision by a majority of British voters to leave the European Union.

Patrick argues that the referendum campaign, the vote itself and its messy aftermath show the many layers of Britain’s dysfunctional political system, made clearer than ever.

The case for radical political reform could hardly be stronger.

Equality by lot

Patrick Chalmers and I are offering our conversation regarding Brexit and related issues.

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Media failures on climate change


‘Arctic sea ice covered a smaller area last winter than in any winter since records began.’ Photograph: Alamy

George Monbiot doesn’t always get things right – I disagreed with his arguments urging Britons to vote “no” in the Brexit referendum, for instance. Yet he hits the proverbial bullseye more often than most commentators.

This recent column on media failures to communicate climate change is a belter, the most relevant paragraphs being the last couple, which are reproduced here:

Why should we trust multinational corporations to tell us the truth about multinational corporations? And if they cannot properly inform us about the power in which they are embedded, how can they properly inform us about anything?

If humanity fails to prevent climate breakdown, the industry that bears the greatest responsibility is not transport, farming, gas, oil or even coal. All of them can behave as they do, shunting us towards systemic collapse, only with a social licence to operate.

The problem begins with the industry that, wittingly or otherwise, grants them this licence: the one for which I work.

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Flatpack Democracy’s DIY independence


Frome ex-mayor Peter Macfadyen (not the current mayor, as incorrectly stated in the interview) talks in this audio interview of how a group of ordinary people in southwest England took control of their local government by standing as non-party, independent candidates.

His story involves a group of local residents – meeting in a pub, of course – who took control of their town council at their first attempt then swept all the seats on their second.

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Democracy Talk, Episode 2

A second video episode of Democracy Talk to add to the audio series hosted here ( – this one featuring Yoram Gat as the questioner and me, Patrick Chalmers, as the interview subject.

Equality by lot

In this episode Patrick Chalmers and Yoram Gat talk about Patrick’s inside view of establishment journalism. Patrick presents his analysis of the roots of the problems with journalism and their connection to the problems of our systems of government.

Patrick’s book – Fraudcast News – How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies – can be found online here:

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Greenwald nails state of US “democracy”

Screenshot from 2016-05-04 13:09:58I’m a big admirer of the work done by Glenn Greenwald, not just in his efforts with the US whistleblower Edward Snowden but also for his ongoing work in exposing and commenting on the realities of US foreign policy. He and Jeremy Scahill have just come out with a new book on the US drone wars called “The Assassination Complex”, previewed here on the indefatigable Democracy Now! Looks like a must-read to me.

Greenwald’s withering assessment of the ongoing US primaries, Democrat and Republican, which he made during the same programme, bears repeating in full.

The “they” he is referring to are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, though both he and Scahill are justifiably critical of Bernie Sanders too.

Well, I mean, I just think it’s—in some sense, Washington, D.C.—not the United States, but Washington, D.C.—is getting exactly the election they deserve. These are the two most unpopular presidential candidates ever to run, I think, in 30 years. They have the highest unfavorable ratings of any nominees in decades. The only thing they’re able to do to one another is try and be as toxic and nasty and destructive as possible, because everybody has already decided, more or less, that they’re so unlikable. And so, it’s going to be the opposite of an inspiring election. It’s just going to be two extremely unpopular people trying to destroy the other on both a personal level, backed by huge amounts of money and serving more or less the same interests. And I think the two parties and the establishment leaders in Washington, and the people who support and run that whole system, have gotten exactly the election that they deserve. Unfortunately, Americans are going to have to suffer along with them.

It really is that bad.

So the most powerful nation on the planet – thereby the most powerful government in history given the weaponry at its disposal – shows no imminent signs of substantive political change at the top.

That makes the work of finding better ways of political decision-making, such as sortition and participatory budgets, all the more critical. If that link seems obscure think of it as the difference between government by the people – “democracy” – versus government by a wealthy few – “oligarchy“.

That’s why I’m planning on ramping up Democracy Talk – an as-yet experimental audio and video reporting series focused on innovations in our political decision-making processes and accompanying commentary on the quality of existing ones.

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