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What is Democracy?

On January 18, I was one among an amazed and lucky audience for "What is Democracy?"at the IFC in New York. I'm grateful to Astra Taylor and Lea Marin for an excellent movie--publicly funded and shown for free.

Some moments were jolting: like the exchange between Astra & Wendy Brown. Brown said that democracy needs a "we," and part of making a "we" is knowing who is outside the community, for whom democracy does not apply, and in relation to whom we become a "we." Martin put it so beautifully after the film: “that’s not what I wanted her to say.”

This moment was followed by Astra's exchange with a woman who recently fled Syria and was now at a refugee camp at the port of Piraeus, Greece; and who mixes laughter and tears in giving the the story of her mother's death--in a way I can only call symptomatic of a very raw wound.

And part of me felt immediately grateful for the form of cinema: that Leah Marin could cut two scenes together, and make Wendy Brown immediately responsible for whatever the fuck she had just said. (Because surely it's not in relation to this Syrian woman that 'we' become a "we.")

But part of me understood that we can't really condemn Wendy Brown for voicing one of the limits of democratic thought: that as democratic people capable of collaborative government, we can see in the "not-we" the capacity to do the same. But given that there are discrete institutions/steps it takes to generate a people's will, we can't invite the other in, in advance.

At the same time: the movie holds open the notion of community (funded by Canada, offering analyses of Europe and US). And if becoming a "we" is a process of collaboration or deliberation, then who is to say we can't become a "we" after we (or as we) let refugees and immigrants in?

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