Spandex politics and the rule of exceptional

Many countries are going through violent times, social unrest, economic frailty and political skepticism. We are told that “real change” in politics and government is impossible and that it is “idealistic” to think that anything can be done differently. All the “isms”: communism, socialism, radicalism, left, right, dictatorships, monarchies are getting old and arthritic.

Here in the US we are just recovering from an excruciating long presidential campaign where the only practical contenders were Democrats and Republicans and no other party stood a chance. So now that all has settled and we have the famous looming “Fiscal Cliff” hanging over our heads like “the Pit and the Pendulum” in Edgar Allan Poe’s story, I feel that it is time to question the “political establishment” as it crawls sluggishly into the future.

Political parties have fallen into an entropic dynamics that leave people wanting for a breath of fresh air, which is why I wish Xapientia readers can share with us ideas, experiences, stories of people that have made a difference  and can move us, touch us, inspire us and awaken our eyes to be the change we are yearning for.

I have brought to Xapientia a philosopher and politician that might just be able to start this journey and whom I leave to your consideration. He not only governed one of the largest cities in the world but used art, humor and creativity (something other leaders have always placed in the nice to have yet superfluous  list) as governing tools.

Antanas Mockus is an extraordinary teacher of Lithuanian descent that went from a classroom at college to becoming Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia in a time when violence was at its height and chaos ruled the city.

He says:

“The crucial point of a citizens’ culture is learning to correct others without mistreating them or generating aggression,” …. “We need to create a society in which civility rules over cynicism and apathy.” Antanas Mokcus.

“There is a tendency to be dependent on individual leaders… it is important to develop collective leadership… I like more egalitarian relationships. I especially like to orient people to learn.” Antanas Mokcus.

“The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task,” … “Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.” “What really moves me to do things that other people consider original is my passion to teach.”  Antanas Mockus

When asked “why” he used mimes instead of police force to diminish accidents, to regulate the chaotic traffic and aggressiveness of drivers as mayor of Bogotá Colombia, he said “With neither words nor weapons, the mimes were doubly unarmed. My goal was to show the importance of cultural regulations.”  Antanas Mockus.

His success story leading Bogotá with over 7 million people and his inventiveness and social experiments have been crucial to establish him as a world class leader in effective alternative methods of government.

Some of  Mockus most  bewildering inventive and effective ploys used as Mayor were :

One time, he asked citizens to use “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” cards that his office distributed to common people. The cards were meant to approve or disapprove of other citizens’ behavior; it was a device that many people actively – and peacefully – used in the streets. This initiative made people aware of rudeness, violence and helped citizens take responsibility in the government of resources, public property and the importance of solidarity. (350,000 government issued cards were used   among many homemade)

He hired 420 mimes to make fun of traffic violators, because he believed Colombians were more afraid of being ridiculed than fined.

He also put in place a “Women’s Night” out with a 40% decrease in violence.

Mark Schapiro , journalist to the Atlantic wrote:

It was March 9, (2001) dubbed La Noche de las Mujeres—an occasion on which a city famous for its machismo was turned over to its female inhabitants. Men without a city-issued pass like the one I carried—essentially a signed pact indicating the holder’s willingness to learn something from the experience—were asked to stay at home. If they ventured out nonetheless, they were blocked from many of the city’s plazas and thoroughfares. A female lieutenant colonel in the National Police was made commander of the city for the night, assisted by a mostly female force of police officers and citizen monitors.

According to pollsters, nearly a quarter of the city’s 3.3 million women were out that night—an enormous showing that cut across class lines. In the southern barrios grandmothers and their granddaughters trooped into the Parque Renacimiento to hear a storyteller. In the city’s affluent north sophisticated young women, for whom going out with their girlfriends was hardly a revolutionary act, listened to a female band at a tidy little park and coyly threw handfuls of flour at the few males seated self-consciously at an adjacent outdoor café.

La Noche de las Mujeres was the creation of Bogotá’s mayor, Antanas Mockus, who has a penchant for freewheeling social experiments to combat the violence and alienation that have corroded Bogotá’s social fabric. La Noche was prompted, he told me, by Bogotá’s unique combination of social conditions. Men are not only far more likely than women to commit violence but also forty times as likely to be its victims. At the same time, women have improved their status in Colombia—which has one of the highest levels of political participation by women in all of Latin America—through a wholly nonviolent struggle. La Noche would provide an opportunity to see what might be learned from women’s forms of social organization and would also serve as an experiment in protecting men from themselves. As it turned out, violence on La Noche was 40 percent lower than on ordinary Friday nights.”

To read more on his interview with Mockus (

Mockus would dress up like a superhero in yellow spandex and a red cape (for all to enjoy) and walk around the city making people aware of public space vandalism. He cleaned the city’s walls from contaminating adds.

Under Mockus’s leadership, Bogotá  water usage dropped 40%, 7000 community security groups were formed and the homicide rate fell 70%, traffic fatalities dropped by over 50%, drinking water was provided to all homes (up from 79% in 1993), and sewerage was provided to 95% of homes (up from 71%). When he asked residents to pay a voluntary extra 10% in taxes, 63,000 people did so!!!

He also asked people to pay 10 percent extra in voluntary taxes. To the surprise of many in 2002 the city collected more than three times the revenues it had garnered in 1990.

Another Mockus inspiration was to ask people to call his office if they found a kind and honest taxi driver; 150 people called and the mayor organized a meeting with all those good taxi drivers, who advised him about how to improve the behavior of mean taxi drivers. The good taxi drivers were named “Knights of the Zebra,” a club supported by the mayor’s office. Vehicular manslaughter dropped dramatically in the city. Pedestrians claimed streets were safer.

He implemented the “Carrot Law,” demanding that every bar and entertainment place close at 1 a.m. with the goal of diminishing drinking and violence.

. “In a society where human life has lost value,” he said, “there cannot be another priority than re-establishing respect for life as the main right and duty of citizens.” “Saving a single life justifies the effort,” Mockus said.

His  messages about “the importance of protecting children from being burned with fireworks, protecting children from domestic violence, and the sacredness of life” reached many, including the children. Once the mother of a 3-year-old girl called his office to say that meeting Mockus was her daughter’s only birthday wish.  She said “When I am going to hit her, she runs to the telephone and says that she is going to call Mockus. She doesn’t even know how to dial a number, but obviously she thinks that you would protect her

Mockus mobilized people to protest against violence and terrorist attacks. He invented a “vaccine against violence,” asking people to draw the faces of the people who had hurt them on balloons, which they then popped. About 50,000 people participated in this campaign.

Mockus also embraced the concept of community policing. He tried to bring the community and the police closer together through the creation of Schools of Civic Security and local security fronts. In 2003, there were about 7,000 local security fronts in Bogotá. “It is very important to understand that the Schools and Fronts respond to a civic ideal. They have nothing to do with firearms but basically promote community organization,” Mockus

Voluntary disarmament days were held in December 1996 and again in 2003. Though less than 1 percent of the firearms in the city were given up, homicides fell by 26 percent, thanks in part to the attention given to the program by the media. The percentage of people who think that it is better to have firearms in order to protect themselves fell from 24.8 percent in 2001 to 10.4 percent in 2003.

In 2003, the Mockus administration provided 1,235,000 homes with sewage service and 1,316,500 with water services. The city’s provision of drinking water rose from 78.7 percent of homes in 1993 to 100 percent in 2003. The sewage service rose from 70.8 percent of homes in 1993 to 94.9 percent in 2003.

When Mockus assumed power, many city positions were distributed according to council members’ recommendations. “I stopped that, and some called me an anti-patronage fundamentalist,” Mockus said. He remembers that when he handed a text explaining his goals of transparency to one key council member, the council member first smiled, but later resigned.

Mockus noted that his administrations were enlightened by academic concepts, including the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass North, who has investigated the tension between formal and informal rules and how economic development is restrained when those rules clash; and Jürgen Habermas’ work on how dialogue creates social capital. Mockus also mentions Socrates, who said that if people understood well, they probably would not act in the wrong way.

Today he is featured in Xapientia as an exceptional leader who used a pedagogical and creative approach that changed politics.

Please tell us about experiments, philosophers, leaders you feel are worth knowing about!

Who is this man and how did he manage to change a stagnant unruly megapolis in South America?

Aurelijus Rutenis Antanas Mockus Šivickas was born in Bogotá, Colombia the 25 March 1952. Mockus holds a 1972 Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics from the University of Burgundy in Dijon, France and a 1988 Master of Arts degree in philosophy from the National University of Colombia. He has been a professor and researcher at the university. He was elected twice as  Mayor of Bogotá. (The development of Bogotá during his first term and the Mayor who followed him Enrique Peñalosa  is described in a documentary film released in October 2009 with the title CITIES ON SPEED – Bogotá Change.) He is currently the President of Corpovisionarios, an organization that consults to cities about addressing their problems through the  methodology that was so successful during his terms as Mayor of Bogotá.Through a popular consultation carried on March 14, 2010, which he won by a large margin, Mockus became the Colombian Green Party presidential candidate. On April 4, 2010, Antanas Mockus chose Medellín‘s former mayor Sergio Fajardo. He ran and lost against the current President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos, getting  27.5% of the vote. Mockus was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2010.

Watch the extraordinary documentary about Bogotá violence and change during the Mockus and Peñalosa administration through unprecedented and inventive politics

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