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Alexandros Christakis: A modern Greek Zorba!

(The translation of this interview, published for the first
time in 01/09/11 is dedicated to two great women,
to Helen Weisz and to Norma Romm)

Confucius believed, that happiness is neither higher of the humans nor beyond them, it is rather at the same “height” of the human existence. Dr. Alexander Christakis, (he insists to be called by his first name, Aleco, as he seems to pay little attention to the formalities of things), he could be a perfect representative model of a modern Zorba the Greek, (the popular hero from homonym book of Nikos Kazantzakis).
      He is a visionary-idealist, who constantly tries to experiment and discover ways of how theory applies to practice, and he never stops fighting and hoping for a better future, for a better world! He is one of those people, who consciously took charge of their destiny and instead of being directed by it, he purposely created it to be at his very own “height”, at the level of his human essence. Recenty, he welcomed me warmly, in his beautiful house in Ano Archanes of Crete, for this interview, but unexpectedly, the interview turned to be an intellectual and emotional “adventure”. Honestly, it was the most marvellous lesson of patriotism and democracy, and that’s why, it was almost impossible for me, not to admire his passionate character, his absolute Greek temperament, his linguistic capacity, which with his academic curiosity along with an endless thirstiness for learning, blended these days with very agony for the “Modern Greek Tragedy”!

      Dr Christakis has already too many reasons to be proud of; Dr Nicholas Christakis the well-known all over the world, medical doctor, biologist, sociologist and professor in Harvard University (who recently visited Crete and talked about the amazing power of Social Networks and his book "CONNECTED” is only one of his five children (two of them have been adopted), and he also has thirteen grandchildren! He currently spends six months in Philadelphia of the United States, along with his wife Helen Weisz, who is a professor of art an artist, and six months in Ano Archanes of Crete.

     Aleco is a tall, proud, generous man, who seems to be tireless, passionate, and energetic, particularly when he talks about his life and his work. Not long ago, he welcomed me, warmly, in his beautiful house in Ano Archanes of Crete, for this interview, but unexpectedly, the interview turned to be an intellectual and emotional “adventure”. Honestly, it was the most marvellous lesson of patriotism and democracy, and that’s why, it was almost impossible for me, not to admire his passionate character, his absolute Greek temperament, his linguistic capacity, which with his academic curiosity along with an endless thirstiness for learning, blended these days with very agony for the “Modern Greek Tragedy”!
     Dr Christakis, at the age of 18, decided to leave Greece and to go to the USA to study. Within his luggage, along with his family memories he managed to “squeeze” the beauty of the Greek sky the deep blue of the sea; After 13 days transatlantic voyage, the very first “trauma” for immigrating in another continent, came through the absence of light, which it was so much less and the sky looked darker and miserable; those are moments where unless someone has experienced them, he/she cannot really understand how nostalgia tastes like...

Every time, even now when I am travelling, every time I return to the USA, I feel the same thing and I always cry for the same reason, no matter how long I’ve been living in the USA, which is nearly 55 years, my heart is still “jumping” when my eyes see the darkness of the sky. At least today, I do know that every sacrifice I did, they all turned to be opportunities for my children, who succeeded in finding their way and made a living in a country, that no matter the difficulties, it offers so many opportunities, particularly to the young people; and it is amazing that I never experienced the stress of getting a job myself as well!”

Education, Professional Experie

     Alecos Christakis studied, Physics at Princeton University, where he did focus on "The Theory of Relativity"Helen Sarandi and they gave birth to three children while later on they decided to adopt two more children (a boy from China and an African-American girl). In 1965 he returned to Greece in order to stay for good, though his democratic mind and character made it difficult to compromise with the reality of a dictatorship, and the absolute atmosphere of a tough nationalism that was spread all over Greece at the time and was creating a dangerous political environment for any democratic spirit. So, he decided along with his wife Helen, to return to America. The return in the USA was followed by a big decision and a turning point in his professional career, which eventually, pushed him towards the true path of the soul;
      Dr Christakis, in collaboration with the great architect Constantinos Doxiadis attempted to create a science for human settlements, “Ekistics” based on the principles of Physics. Today, he counts more than 40 years of hard work and research in social sciences and particularly in the structured democratic dialogue method, where he contributed and enforced systemic methodological practice in negotiations on the peace process in Cyprus, as well as in the Middle East (Israel, Palestine), while he also contributed decisively towards the implementation of a series of structured dialogues on a massive scale level and succeeded in the establishment of dialogues among people with complex national and social problems;

       Dr Christakis’ contribution helped them to create a new vision and then he showed them the way to work in order to approximate the achievement of that vision. The most important thing, in the procedure is the engagement of the voices of the stakeholders and the steps of protecting and including those voices in the decision making process, so that they realize that by listening to each other and be respecting each others’ perspective, they own the problem and then the discovery of a common, democratic solution, becomes possible. So, the solution is the product of a normative, democratic inclusion in practice based on the method of structured democratic dialogue and for this knowledge itself becomes broader, fairer, and more complete; the knowing procedure becomes more democratic itself.

      Dr Christakis, has a good argument about the democratic dialogue itself; he says, “those who do not own the problem, they cannot suggest the solutions of it” meaning that no one has the right, the knowledge or the permission to talk for us without us, and at the same time, our very knowledge will be always incomplete, subjective, or even unfair, if we do not know, if we do not intend to listen to every voice, if we do not protect the essential right of every human being to express freely what he/she believes, even if we do not agree with it. [This takes us back to the spirit of the Enlightenment and to what Voltaire believed about the freedom of speech.]

      In 1968, Aleco Christakis co-founded the Club of Rome, along with Aurelio Peccei, Erich Jantsch and Hasan Ozbekhan, a club of visionaries which questioned and challenged the “certainties” of the modern 'civilization', where the mind is taught to think in “certain ways”, and ends up to be unable to realize what is happening in the world today. The Club of Rome was the efforts of a bunch of visionaries, who looked for a new dynamic glance, a new structured perspective with the potentiality to “inject” new ideals and morality within the veins of society.

     Dr Christakis worked as a professor and researcher in the Universities of Yale, Georgetown, Virginia, and Athens; for five years he was the Head Leader of the Centre for Interactive Management at the University of George Mason in U.S.A. He founded his own company Interactive Management Advisory and he also became the president of the International Society of Systems Sciences (ISSS), as well as president of the 21st Century “Agora” Institute, a non-profit organization, following the paradigm of Ancient Greek Agoras, dedicated to the development of citizenship in a global context and the expansion of structured democratic dialogue as a tool for making decisions in complex business issues, national and social problems. He also participated in the Global Future’s Foundation and as a consultant on a special education program for Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) ambassadors.

      He has also received numerous awards and honours, including the award "Dimosofia, a Prize for "Creative Planning" and a "Medal of the Greek Society of Systemic Sciences." Additionally, he has participated in several publications of books and over a 100 research papers about the management of complex situations, as well as the use of language as a tool of negotiation and dialogic thinking to deal with complex issues.

SDD Structured Democratic Dialogue: Respect for everyone’s voice

        "In democracy, there is room for everyone” and the life and work of Dr Christakis is devoted to that ideal and principle. As a social scientist, he has spent over 40 years of research and practice on the subject and he succeeded in developing the tools that protect the right of the stakeholders who are involved in a complex situation to express themselves regardless of their colour, religion, social class, tenure, or skills; for him, to act upon respect, equality and meritocracy towards the opinion of everyone, is the foundation to build up, with the same “ingredients” the knowledge of the whole society. That was the very meaning of the Ancient Greek Democracy, anyway, where anyone had the right to talk for himself, and to represent no one but himself and through the majority vote, he/she could even expel someone who was more popular or more powerful.

      So with the use of the SDD, a new consensual 'space' space for negotiation is created, whereby the voice all those people who are excluded today from our “democratic” societies and from the decision making process are included. "Nowadays, for us to return to the democratic process the concept of leadership and governance should be modernized; this is the very and only way for our illusions to vanish and the chimeras to leave space for the reality to blossom. There are not superheroes or god saviours, either saviours-leader” Dr Christakis adds, "we have fallen into a vicious circle where democracy is absent, the leaders have sold they soul for the money and the citizen feels trapped, desperate and castrated in the covered, closed, patronizing, totalitarian social systems that ironically are called "democratic. Visions are great and important, but without systemic approach, without a normative practice, they are condemned! Along with them, is condemned our personal and collective freedom, our very identity!” So, the modern or more rightfully, a meta-modern challenge; how can we turn all these “democratic” monologues of our era, in meaningful, democratic dialogues where citizen’s opinions will be included rather than excluded?
       Aleco Christakis, as a teacher of democratic dialogue, is a great paradigm of open-mind, arguing spirit and never fails to doubt about things in humble and interesting way. He is a passionate believer of idea that every human being is capable to engage within a democratic dialectic, and expressing an opinion about politics. This type of values have weakened nowadays, since our lives have been deliberately determined to be focusing more on individualistic matters rather than the public ones; many of us, no matter if we realize it or not, we allowed in our thinking, in our judgment and in our utterance, to become “products” of manipulation and obedience.

      Under this perspective, the structured democratic dialogue theory and practice of Dr Christakis’, is a meta-modern suggestion for change and exit; suggestively, through a democratic network of collaboration and negotiation, equivalent to the functioning potentiality of Social Networks that Dr Nicholas Christakis (Aleco’s son), has suggested and contributed in making us realize through his scientific evidence. SDD requires not a random or grouped or confound connection, but rather a conscious, specific and systemic connection of the stakeholders within the context of the same problematique, and simultaneously the readiness of mind to reconnect to the new “ground” that is being created through the structured democratic dialogue.

     “It is a bottom-up democracy, far away from the arrogance or the elitism of today’s global mess, that opens up new possibilities in engaging stakeholders from different disciplines, nationalities, personalities in a disciplined dialogue with humility and authenticity and the willingness to learn from each other”, A. Christakis specifies. Thus the influence and the interaction with others via the democratic dialectic can act as a factor against the monologues and the demagogues; if social networks can affect our biology and psychology, could they affect our ideas and political communication for instance, considering as fundamental tool the language. So, what happens to our thinking process via a structured democratic dialogue? Does the awareness of the problem and the potentiality of a possible solution increase through the interaction with the others?

Aleco Christakis: “Greece suffers because of the political monologues”

       “In the USA, what I really miss, is my own language”, he confided to me, “my soul is connected with the Greek language, so intensively that when I get upset I cannot swear or shout in any other language. For Greece is not only about light, sun and the sea, it is also about the language! It is through the language we are thinking, interact with each other and connect with the word. Nowadays, Greece, suffers from endless monologues, as well as lack of collective knowledge (ownership) and realization of the problem. The problem is that money has become a “new religion and societies use the language imposed by the economists. However, the truth is that the credit crunch is only the symptom of a deeper crisis, which is moral, intellectual and social, it is a crisis of values. So, we need to turn towards the discovery of a moral “root”, if we want to cope with the current situation and confront the problem in its real dimensions, using the right words!

      "Starting from politics, or the National Health System, or governance itself, there are still narrow minded people who never think behind the phenomena but they remain on the very surface of an arithemetic logic. We as Greeks have lost our dialectic abilities, we have lost the way to discuss, express ourselves and listen to the other’s soul; so instead of taking responsibility for what all we are doing at the moment we are blaming each other for our own problems. Additionally, we refuse to engage easily within a dialogueing procedure of discussing them and we childishly pretend that they do not even exist. We refuse to act on humility to do self-criticism and to accept that along with our opinion should be respected the opinion or the opinions of the others.

     For real knowledge derives through the interaction of [gnome=>I] opinion and [gnosi=>we] knowledge and that is the only method that can show us the way to dignity, redemption and purification [catharsis], like in the ancient Greek Tragedies. It is crucial for us to discover a new patriotism and a method of cooperation to become "owners" of own problems; and for that we should think globally but act locally. That is why it was created the movement or the demonstrations of Indignants, in most Greek cities, they are the oppressed, and those whose voice doesn’t quite fit behind the personas of “modern democracies”. These people are fighting for the opinion to be considered and respected and they are searching for solutions beyond the solutions-monologues of those politicians whose power is based on propaganda and demagoguery. This is how racism is functioning through the exclusion of the other as the presupposition to develop the self’s identity.”

        Shortly before completing the conversation with Dr Christakis, I am sharing with him my thought, that he reminds me so much of the spirit of Alexis Zorbas, the hero described by Nikos Kazantzakis in the homonymous book; he nod with head affirmatively, and he said “YES!” “My life was no much different from Zorbas life”. And he continues, “I’ve always devoted myself passionately in everything that I‘ve loved, and I always tried to experience it with all the power of my soul, as it was the very first and the very last time”. His eyes and the movements of his hands reveal to me that his words are honest and truthful.

His mind holds well on a global perspective, though his words bringhim back again and again in the very agony that he feels about Greece and about the island that he live, Crete. As an authentic democratic character and a pure soul, he knows how to love and offer things fairly and generously, (I cannot even understand when he is talking about his biological and when about his adopted children). Within his heart, there are no exclusions, separations, boundaries; he is a mature, integrated soul including people, ideas, the entire world, in no higher or lower level that the human being, at the “height” of the human, and for this he is a happy man according to Confucius. 

      And my last question to him is, "is there is any sort of secret for this happiness of his, and he responds instantaneously “Yes there is”, and his eyes are full of tears?", it is the freedom and the unconditional love, the one that neither limits, neither restricts nor imposes the will of one another".

[Aleco, thank you for teaching me via the structured democratic dialogue vision, that the opinion of the one, should not be considered or become the knowledge of everyone!]

For more information about the work ofAlexandros Christakis, at the following links

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