Personal Democracy Forum - CC / Flickr
Personal Democracy Forum - CC / Flickr

I’m in the United States for just the second time in my life and I’ve had some time to reflect a little on my impressions of the place. Last week I was at Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) in New York, and I’m currently writing in Washington DC. I’m here simply to feel what the place is like.

I feel there’s something terribly schizophrenic about the United States and it’s fascinating.

At first glance there’s this excellent, overwhelming bonhomie that’s really genuinely expressed. The guy that makes a smoothie for you in a little NY deli who assures you his concoction is excellent (and it is), the waiter in the Cuban restaurant who enthuses about the chef’s creations, even passers by in the street with whom it’s possible to strike up a conversation.

Professionally for me all of this manifested itself at PdF in the presentation of a whole line of tools – from VoteiQ to Visible Vote – that are explained as the way to change politics. Let the geeks program the coolest tool and everything will be just fab!

Yet the flip side of all of this is an entrenched paranoia, rule obsession and risk aversion that is hard to avoid.

For every cool tool at PdF there is the fear that politics is beholden to special interests and the future of the country is in peril. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill typifies it perfectly – this devastation of the great American nation’s nature, before the overweight local politician criticising BP pulls himself into his groaning SUV that consumes the cheap petrol the USA so craves.

PdF’s unconference even ran a session in Citizen Gerrymandering – how to get citizens interests involved in drawing the electoral map, but surely that’s answering the wrong question at the very start?

At the individual level there are signs and announcements telling you what to do and not do everywhere, and what fines you’ll receive for everything from congregating near the galley in the Delta Airlines transatlantic aeroplane to honking your car horn at the wrong junction. The law is to be respected because it’s the law, not because it’s a sensible way to enshrine the rules that make the society function.

All of this, in the land of the free, is summed up in the Newseum, a museum on Pennsylvania Avenue in New York dedicated to the 1st Amendment right to a free press. As a visitor I’m not trusted enough to press the button in the elevator on my own to get myself to the 6th floor of the building. Not as if it’s that complex – that was the only option – but I received a stern word from the attendant nevertheless, and he had to push the button for me.

So what does ‘free’ actually mean?

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