Matt Mullen speaking at TEDxLincoln, video frame courtesy TEDxLincoln
Matt Mullen speaks at TEDxLincoln. Video frame courtesy TEDxLincoln

“It is not that democracy is failing in the U.S., it is that the U.S. is failing democracy,” Matt Mullen said.

Originally slated to run live at the Lied Center in June, TEDxLincoln’s main 2020 event, “Alchemy,” was held online on Sept. 12. In his talk, Mullen, author of “Pathways that Changed Myanmar,” warned of the world’s slide into authoritarianism, defined as governance that relies on submission to authority instead of free democracy. Mullen has a doctorate in human rights and peace studies.

Video courtesy of TEDxLincoln

“2020 has been a staggering year,” Mullen said. “2020 has made it abundantly clear that the U.S. is not a human rights-based society: children in cages, families separated and forced into the shadows, asylum speakers casually sent home to perilous fates. We’ve seen so much preventable suffering around COVID-19.”

He said George Floyd was tortured in broad daylight and activists are treated like enemy combatants in our streets.

Referencing activist and author Kimberly Jones, Mullen said the social contract feels broken beyond repair and that it’s hard to even imagine win-wins.

“You broke the contract when you killed us in the streets and didn’t give a f*ck. You broke the contract when for 400 years, we played your game and built your wealth,” Jones said in an interview with David Jones Media about police brutality in late May.

These and other racial injustices will prevent progress until directly addressed, according to Mullen.

“We have yet to even start pursuing the restorative justice that is necessary to reckon with America’s dark past,” Mullen said. “That past, that past is something we will never outrun. The wounds of slavery and the Native American genocide are open and they’re bleeding. Those wounds cannot begin to heal until we initiate an actual transition built around accountability and agency”

Mullen offered a pathway toward a brighter future, guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR, written by a special UN committee chaired by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 after witnessing the terrors of World War II, was a blueprint to protect human beings from ourselves, according to Mullen.

Ignoring this document has allowed “poor discourse and practice to proliferate,” Mullen said. “Human rights are about protecting species, and we treat this stuff like it’s a game.”

This is a collective problem shown not only in leadership, but also our individual lives, he said.

“We buy from brands that are doing harm all over the world, and we know it. Think about those boxes arriving on our doorsteps. The story behind those boxes features abuse: overseas and at home,” Mullen said. “The people who make those goods and fill those orders are taking on great risks during this pandemic to keep our economy afloat. Companies are celebrating those workers in their commercials and at the very same time actively prohibiting them from collectively organizing and having a voice.”

While Amazon workers struggle with unsafe working conditions, management does everything it can to prevent organization, according to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. This includes training managers to bust unions, hiring analysts to track workers’ behavior, and creating heatmaps and using racial data to determine “store risk.” Article 23 of the UDHR states that unionizing is a human right.

“It’s often the only way that people who face power disparities can protect themselves and their interests,” Mullen said. “It’s on us to get accountable and set these expectations.” 

He said the only way to overcome the predatory side of human kind is to pair accountability with agency and put human rights properly into motion.

“2020 has been a reckoning,” Mullen said. “But it has given us an opportunity to realize what America could be. And we get there by elevating human rights as if the fate of humanity depends on it…because it does.”

On a phone interview, Ryan Dobesh, one of the lead organizers and president of TEDxLincoln, spoke about the impact COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests had on the event.

“It was a crazy time for our speakers and coaches: writing a script, almost in a sense tearing it up, then everything that’s happened since June, and re-writing everything,” Dobesh said.

He said working with the speakers and coaches and “learning about all the greatness that Lincoln has to offer is just such a treat.”

Dobesh commended their flexibility in “finding something that was timely and was still something they cared deeply about and wanted to share with the community and the world.”

Mullen echoed this sentiment in a live talkback session after the main program.

“They usually want you to have a timeless talk, but not now,” he said.

The main stream was bookended with records spun by DJ Spencer Munson and also featured talks by Ann Hunter-Pirtle, Jill Cockson, Garrett Hope, and Jessica Charlsen and Jina Picarella.