According to historian Rutger Bregman, humanity’s inherent goodness shines through when things are at their darkest.
Today, for the last time, I would like to make your life easier and much more fun by sharing some of the insights of historian Rutger Bregman. As you may remember, his earth-shattering premise is that people are intrinsically good. Not feral animals with a thin veneer of civilization, as we usually see ourselves.
We are, Bregman writes, the Homo Puppy, wagging our tails, wanting attention and belonging. And the way we get that is by being nice. Look at the real dogs in your life: they get pats on the back when they love us, not when they growl and snarl.
Same thing, according to Bregman, and last week I looked at the consequences of that way of thinking for our personal lives. The way we live, raise our children, work. Today, I would like to broaden the scope and pass on some of the fascinating examples Bregman gives of people and places that have tried to run their world in a different way. They are big issues some deal with: democracy, racism, war, and violence.
And yet, it seems that it can be done, that it is possible to appeal to our inner nice guy and get results.
First of all: democracy, the issue of the moment. We are all unhappy with our elected officials and the way they behave. Nevertheless, we keep putting them forward and reinforcing our disappointment. It seems an endless loop; that is dangerous because, as we have seen, it leads to Trump and Brexit and threats of war left, right, and center.
So: is it possible to do it differently?
Bregman says it is and he substantiates that with a number of interesting case studies. The first is the story of Torres in Venezuela, where something substantial changed in 2004. Faced with an election choice of a rock and a hard place, the people of Torres decided to do neither and go for what Bregman calls a marginal maverick, a guy called Julio Chavez, whose platform seemed as simple as it was crazy: make me the mayor of your city and I will give you all the power I have.
Nobody took him seriously, but the inhabitants of Torres, tired of the same old, same old, gave him a chance, and Chavez turned out to be a man of his word.
First of all, he introduced a citizens’ budget: the whole of the city’s money would from now on be controlled by the citizens. Then Chavez told them that in order to be able to decide where the money would go, they would have to run Council as well. And funnily enough, it worked. After ten years, corruption was a distant memory, citizens felt responsible for their town, and plenty of roads, schools, and low-income houses had been built well and for not a lot of money.
During that time, the local governor tried to stop this “anarchy” and cut off funding for Torres. In response, thousands of townspeople organized a sit-down demonstration and demanded their rights back. Their stamina proved greater than the governor’s.
Even now, Torres still has one of the largest citizens’ budgets in the world. Every year starts with meetings in 560 spots in town, where 15,000 people propose ideas and decide what to do with the city’s money.
Cynicism, as Bregman rightfully writes, is another word for laziness. If you believe that the world is a valley of tears and all men are prone to horrible things, you can sit back and watch injustice happen without having to lift a finger.
Torres is not the only city in the world with a citizens’ budget. Porto Alegre in Brazil has had it since 1989, and now more than 1,500 cities, from New York to Hamburg and Mexico City worked with a way of participatory budgeting.
Since 2012, even some Australian jurisdictions have been trying it out: NSW’s Canada Bay, Melville and Geraldton in WA and Darebin and Melbourne in Victoria.
Of course, researchers have been looking into the consequences for councils who work with PB and, knock me down drunk: most citizens now feel less cynical and more involved, they understand politics better, feel better about themselves and the world, and more empowered. Especially poor people and minorities, who have never had a voice, participate. In New York, it is Latinos and African Americans, in Porto Alegre, 30% of the people involved come from the poorest 20% of the population.
They saw to it that the amount of citizens with good plumbing in their houses doubled in seven years, as did the amount of people with running water. School attendance for children tripled, and far less money was spent on prestigious building projects. The interesting thing is that one of the decisions of the participants to PB was to increase taxes, because, one of the participants in Leicester in the UK said, “I never knew how many services were paid for from those taxes.”
Interesting, isn’t it, this “politics are us” experiment?! Although it can barely be called an experiment anymore, with so many councils participating. What is most noticeable, though, is the change in the people themselves.
Another major issue in the world, of course, is war and violence. Some conflicts last many decades and seem to be unsolvable. For most of the twentieth century, South Africa looked like one of the best examples of that statement.
Apartheid (officially invented and named in 1948) only got worse over time, segregating, killing, torturing, and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people. And, says Bregman, it might never have ended without the Viljoen brothers.
Constand and Abraham were twins, Afrikaners. They were very much alike until Abraham (Braam) went to university and his brother entered the army. Constand jumped from helicopters, fought in Zambia and Angola, and became tightly connected to his military family. Braam studied in America and Holland, met people from around the world, and after a while came to the conclusion that Apartheid was a seriously bad idea.
His countrymen, including his brother, called him a traitor when he started advocating for Mandela and an end to racism. Constand, in the meantime, became the head of the South African army, Apartheid’s big protector. In 1993, at a meeting of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (run by Eugene Terre’Blanche, an admirer of Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan), Constand volunteered to lead a new movement, the Afrikaner Volksfront, in its violent resistance against change.
In two months, he managed to bring 150,000 men together, who were ready and willing to kill as many black people as possible. It seemed that a serious war was about to break out. Then Braam decided to act. Although he hadn’t spoken to his brother for decades and despises everything he stands for, he looked him up.
A few months before, Braam had spoken to Mandela, still in jail, and Mandela had decided to feed his nice wolf. He had given Braam permission to make his brother an offer. Would he like to meet Mandela, to negotiate about the position of the Afrikaners in person?
Also on The Big Smoke
- Bregman’s Theory: Despite Everything, Humanity Is Actually Decent
- Bregman’s Theory: The Nocebo Effect and the Puppy Within: The Two Conditions That Guide Us
Constand agreed and Mandela welcomed him in his own language, praising his efforts of the past, drawing commonalities between the struggle of the Afrikaners against the British and the ANC’s struggle against Apartheid. He was respectful, addressing Constand as “General,” warmly shaking his hand.
This, in the end, will stop the war that seemed inevitable, and make it possible for Mandela to leave jail not long after. Choosing to see the other as good, Braam would write, changed the course of (South African) history.
This is not an exception, Bregman shows in his book, and it is also not something Biblical or done by people with better souls than the rest of us.
On the contrary. For millennia, we have thought that humankind was not kind and barely human. Our self-image was that we were animals, ready to kill and maim. More and more research, and more and more examples like the one in South Africa, are showing us that this idea is simply wrong.
Most people are good: that is the real reality, the truth we now know to be true. Of course, evil is strong. But good is far more plentiful. On the bus, we have civil conversations instead of tearing each other to bits. We might yell at the driver who cuts us off, but most of us don’t get out of the car and kill him.
If you want to be a realist, don’t be a cynic.
Cynicism, as Bregman rightfully writes, is another word for laziness. If you believe that the world is a valley of tears and all men are prone to horrible things, you can sit back and watch injustice happen without having to lift a finger. Then rape, murder, and climate change are only proof you are right about the world. Lucky you.
It is braver, of course, to follow the example of Mandela and Constand Viljoen: most people are good. Then, anything can happen.