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ON THE FRONT LINES: Oslo Freedom Forum encourages us to reckon with difficult truths to protect, sustain democracy

On the Front Lines

At Oslo Freedom Forum, democracy and human rights issues inspire attendees to think about how to best create change. – Photo by Richard Suta

“America is broken!” has become ubiquitous in American politics. The premise of the last two presidential campaigns relied on tapping into the feeling of a fractured American culture: Make America Great Again and Build Back Better both implied brokenness that needed fixing.

One might say that any campaign hyperbolizes, but for a campaign to succeed, it must tap into real feelings. For campaigns to win on an “America is broken” message, Americans must feel like something is broken.

Feelings of a broken American culture have been borne in recent polling. One such poll, conducted to gauge what issues are motivating people for the midterms, found that an astounding 67 percent of respondents care about this year's elections, at least in part, because they believe American democracy is in peril.

Such an indictment of the American political system calls for a reckoning of our politics and culture. Understanding that something has gone wrong in our politics, the question becomes: How do we heal?

These questions were raised at the 2022 Oslo Freedom Forum in New York City, which took place this past Monday, October 3. The event occurred at The Town Hall, a stately, old building in Midtown founded by the League for Political Education, an early twentieth-century suffragist group, which already situates the Forum as a part of the historical and ongoing fight for justice.

Upon entering the venue, there is a sense of taking up a tradition of fighting for progress. Above the entrance is a quote from the Book of John 8:32, which says: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Any beginning of the fight for justice demands a reckoning with the truth.

Perhaps the most disturbing “truth” to come out from the conference was the first and most obvious one: the Forum's very existence. The reason this event exists – to bring together revolutionaries to think about liberty and safeguarding justice globally – is because there are real and pressing threats to democracy around the globe happening at this very moment.

For us, it is easy to overlook these challenges. Still, for the billions of individuals suffering under despotic governments, ideas about democracy and freedom are not abstract intellectual exercises but are a matter of life and death.

For example, Iranian feminist and journalist Masih Alinejad railed against the regression of women’s rights in Iran and the failure of Western feminists to stand up for Iranian women.

Taking such a loud stance against injustice and gender-based violence has made Alinejad herself a target. Despite being an American citizen, Alinejad has faced kidnapping and assassination attempts for her role in speaking out against Iran. Even with these risks, she continues to use her voice.

Alinejad is one particularly resonant case, but it is essential to keep in mind that she is not alone in facing danger. The potential for violence exists at the personal, communal and societal levels. Ordinary people – even those who are not activists – are vulnerable to suffering.

The suffering faced by regular citizens was the focus of Oleksandra Matviichuk's talk about the fight for democracy in Ukraine. In her talk, Matviichuk focused on the impact of the war on villagers, men, women and children. She talked about the death of a farmer who had nothing to do with the war and the impact of his death on his family.

The human impact is crucial to consider, not just to show the suffering but also to inspire change. Once the truth of human pain is made evident, change might be able to happen.

The most important lesson from the Forum was that to protect democracy, time is needed. Democracy will not be saved overnight. Rushed solutions (like many proposed in our current political environment) do not solve the underlying problem.

Politicians win elections by promising solutions. That is how politics works. But quick solutions are criminally negligent for an issue as big as democracy. Instead of rushing to fix problems, we must sit with the issues and learn from them and then make the change that is sustainable for the long term.

The German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin offers a way of thinking about sitting with human suffering as a way to make progress. Benjamin became so overtaken by the rise of Nazism and tyranny in Germany that, in his attempt to escape persecution, he died by suicide near the border of Spain and Portugal. Before his death, though, Benjamin produced his last essay, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in which he addresses the seemingly endless cycles of violence that punctuate human history.

To show this cultural tendency to violence, Benjamin created the Angel of History as something that constantly moves forward, bearing witness to all human tragedy but completely unable to help.

Benjamin describes the Angel: His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.

"But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The Angel’s inability to intervene does not mean that progress is impossible. In showing what the Angel sees, Benjamin invites us to look at the past and all the violence, too. The only way to heal a broken democracy and minimize the future debris of violence is to commit ourselves to the broken parts.

Confronting the truths of the past makes it possible to imagine a better future. Indeed, the future for the Angel is invisible, it is moving forward, but its sight is locked on the past. Likewise, there might be a storm of immense suffering, but progress can be made only through that storm. What might seem awful now might be the origins of change, but we must truthfully reckon with them.

We cannot avert our attention, we must contend with these challenges truthfully, and then we can make progress. That is the lesson from the Oslo Freedom Forum.

Ricky Suta is the opinions editor of The Daily Targum.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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