Ranjani Iyer Mohanty's Blog

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SEPTEMBER 23, 2011 1:31AM

UN Palestine vote: the wisdom of crowds

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Once upon a time there was an orphan boy who was shunted from foster home to foster home, very badly treated along the way, and often had his lunch money stolen. Then one day he met a big strong older boy who was class valedictorian, a straight-A student, captain of the track team, and an all-round good guy. This older boy helped the orphan boy to find a new and happy foster home, in fact on the same road where the orphan boy’s parents had once lived. They became very close friends, and the orphan boy flourished under the older boy’s protection.  

Then one day, a little boy came to the big boy and said that he lived next door to the orphan boy and the orphan boy was now stealing his lunch money. The big boy told him not to worry, to just be patient, and that he would fix everything. The little boy waited but nothing really happened. He often saw the big boy and the orphan boy having lunch together. Sometimes they even invited the little boy, and the little boy and the orphan boy would shake hands in front of the big boy and promise to be friends. Then the orphan boy would begin stealing his little boy’s lunch money again. The little boy would sometimes get frustrated and throw stones at the orphan boy’s house, and the response was always a huge boulder dropped on him. And in the meantime, his lunch money was stolen every day.

Finally, the little boy decided that he had had enough. Maybe the big boy was not the right person to help him after all. He wondered if he should take his problem to a big meeting of all of his classmates. The big boy and the orphan boy became very angry with the little boy, saying that he should only discuss the problem with them, and in taking the issue to others, he was making a grave mistake; it would only make things worse and even the police might get involved. But the little boy thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’

What happens when you are, as Edward Said described it, the victim of the victim? And to boot, your case is being mediated by a superpower who is the BFF of your opponent?

Perhaps the US is not the best mediator to solve the situation between Israel and Palestine. To more accurately re-phrase Obama’s recent speech, ‘Peace may not come through statements and resolutions of the US – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.’ After decades of impotent bilateral negotiations mediated by the US, it may be time to try something different: the wisdom of crowds. James Surowiecki in his bestseller book of that name describes several situations, including politics and diplomacy, where ordinary people are better at figuring out a situation or solving a problem than supposed experts: “…political debate should not be, and need not be, confined to experts and policy elites. Given enough information and the chance to talk things over with peers, ordinary people are more than capable of understanding complex issues and making meaningful choices about them.”

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”

We are not movers and shakers. We are not experts. We are just ordinary people. But we can see that something has gone very wrong. A poll conducted for the NGO Avaaz found that the majority of those asked in UK, France, and Germany want Palestine to be recognized as a state. A survey commissioned by the BBC across 19 countries found that 49% supported statehood for Palestine, and only 21% opposed it. There was 56% support in China and even in the US, there was 45% support.

Even some experts have seen the light and are beginning to be stand up. Martti Ahtisaari (former president of Finland, UN mediator, and Nobel Peace Prize winner) and Javier Solana (former secretary general of NATO and EU high representative for common foreign and security policy) in a lucid op-ed last week discussed ten reasons why the EU should support the Palestinian’s bid for statehood. India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh and Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff have both assured Palestine of their support. UN expert and professor of international law at Princeton University, Richard Falk in a statement said that the vote “provides a momentous occasion for the international community to respond to a legacy of injustice.”

If Mahmoud Abbas asked the people of the world today, many would recognize Palestine as a state and give it UN membership. And though the UN is a somewhat smaller crowd, there is a good chance that even they will support Palestine’s bid for membership today. It may not bring about any big or sudden change on the ground, but it could show much needed symbolic support for the Palestinian people and that we are capable of fairness.

Perhaps it’s time to trade in grand opinions and singular truths for multiple voices, each respected. In many cases and on many topics, there is no such thing as truth anyways – only various needs, each valid. Surowiecki says, “…chasing the expert is a mistake, and a costly one at that. We should stop hunting and ask the crowd (which, of course, includes the geniuses as well as everyone else) instead. Chances are, it knows.”

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I agree, "We are just ordinary people. But we can see that something has gone very wrong," and "Perhaps it’s time to trade in grand opinions and singular truths for multiple voices, each respected. In many cases and on many topics, there is no such thing as truth anyways – only various needs, each valid." I agree with you. Being for Palestinian statehood is not being against Israel. Peace would benefit everyone, as it always does.
Ranjani, thank you so very very much for this post. Most especially for the beautiful imageries and metaphor of the first part. Kind of lightens the load, for a moment. The second part is exquisitely reasoned (?"she says"?, ?"Speaking ex cathedra"?!). [A bit of selfmockery, that.]

The beauty of the first part was exquisite for me in what I was looking for when I came to OS to see who had posted on any of this today. Balm to my troubled mind/heart. The second part has much I feel is still somewhat open to discussion ... and I sure hope you'll get a lot!

RRR! ;-)
Ranjani, thank you so very very much for this post. Most especially for the beautiful imageries and metaphor of the first part. Kind of lightens the load, for a moment. The second part is exquisitely reasoned (?"she says"?, ?"Speaking ex cathedra"?!). [A bit of selfmockery, that.]

The beauty of the first part was exquisite for me in what I was looking for when I came to OS to see who had posted on any of this today. Balm to my troubled mind/heart. The second part has much I feel is still somewhat open to discussion ... and I sure hope you'll get a lot!

RRR! ;-)
[Please delete duplicate post. Thanks.]