Tuesday, June 17, 2008

“Business as Usual” ends at home

By Ed Smallwood

For the past couple of years I have been publishing my thoughts online in the form of essays. One essay at a time, one thought at a time. They started out as a trickle that I would put on a MySpace page, and have in recent months turned into a virtual deluge (for me) that I have been posting anywhere I can from my personal blog to any news or commentary site I can find.

As I publish more, I’m noticing more people are responding to my thoughts. I have seen many messages, both public and private, from people that are very thoughtful. Those are the comments I cherish.

Some of my essays have been about what I think should be done to improve the world in some small way, whether it be improving the environment by modifying our behavior, to improving communications in this country by acknowledging a problem and fixing it. There is one response to these essays that I have gotten that has gotten me mad: “Not gonna happen.” It is a simple statement of belief, a resignation of what is. A surrender to the inevitable.

Although the people who make this statement may not realize it, it’s also lazy and a way of dodging personal responsibility. “Nothing is going to change, so I don’t have to do anything or feel guilty about it. I can safely sit here in front of my TV and criticize others about how bad things are.”

Every time this happens a lobbyist or legislator smiles. You can almost hear them: “You smell that? That’s apathy. I love the smell of apathy in the morning!”

I decided to ask myself why this thought process made me mad. Why should I be surprised that someone would think this way when, in fact, all of the evidence of the past 40 years or so completely backs them up?

For years we have been told by surveys that Americans are tired of “Business as Usual.” My loose working definition of “Business as Usual” is a government that doesn’t listen to its constituents, but listens very carefully to lobbyists for corporations and special interests. Distilled down to two words: “Money talks.”

So, if Americans are tired of “Business as Usual,” why is it usual? Why has it been usual? How could people put up with it for this long? It’s because true Democracy has not been considered important.

Democracy requires several things to work: Information, participation, consent. These aren’t just optional parts of a democracy, they are vital. For years television news has been our main source of information about our government. Newspapers have been shriveling on the vine from neglect. Newsmagazines used to be staples of the check-out line at supermarkets. Now they have been placed so far down on the racks I thought that they had been removed entirely until a few days ago when I nearly kicked one. The slots that used to be filled with Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Reports have all been replaced by scandal sheets and entertainment magazines, with the newsmagazines being placed so low on the racks that they are below the eye-level of even the smallest child (certainly not their target readership.) “Who cares what’s happening in the real world?” these reformatted racks proclaim. “Read about what’s happening in the soap operas on your favorite television network instead!”

Through miseducation our democratic process has been limited much more than simply through our sources of information. “Get out there and vote!” we hear at this time of the election cycle. “Vote!” From some other people you will hear, “If you don’t know the issues, don’t vote!” The implication here is that democracy is simply about voting. You vote or you don’t vote. You vote for one pre-selected candidate or the other; for a proposition or against it. You can work on one candidate’s campaign, or the other, or stay away and choose from the comfort of your living room. That is all that is expected of you, and all of the communication that is wanted from you. All of civics reduced to a single paragraph. Complexities removed. “If you don’t like it, then stay home. We don’t want your opinion.”

There is a saying that I’m sure you’ve heard. It has been around since the founding of our country: “United we stand. Divided we fall.” Well, the citizenry of the United States has been divided up into a nation of individuals, and that’s why democracy is failing. Voter turnout falls when there is no perceived difference in the candidates. Choosing candidates is usually like going to an ice-cream store and being offered vanilla, vanilla bean, or French vanilla. Why is this? Because television networks allow the candidates to portray themselves this way. We are told that we have the choice between the candidate that has experience and will change the way things work, and the candidate that has less experience and will change the way things work. Has television really given us a history of what the candidates have done, or have the networks given the candidates carte blanc to redefine themselves in any way they want? After all, if the television networks want access to the candidates they can’t ask the hard questions.

This has been the way business in Washington has been conducted for decades, and will continue to be until we stop them. If you are waiting to elect someone who will end “Business as Usual,” you will wait forever and never see it end. This will not change from the top. It works much too well for the people that have been elected, as well as the corporations, lobbyists, and News Networks that got them elected. They currently have no motivation to change. As long as you are isolated, sitting comfortably in front of your TV, getting the news they want you to hear and limiting your involvement to voting periodically, they won’t change a thing. Oh, often you’ll hear them loudly talk about campaign finance reform, while messily gutting it out of public view.

The fact is that we cannot come to these people and ask them for meaningful reform. Especially if we are not willing to change ourselves.

You must be wondering by this point what it is that I am asking? Do I really expect people to get out of their couches and march? Do I expect people to start running for office? Should we all write our congresspeople? Should we blog?

I have an idea at this point. It is just the beginning of an idea, fragile and easily destroyed by apathy. If carefully nurtured it could bear the sweetest fruit. It is still very small and will require care to survive long enough, and we cannot do it separately and in isolation.

You see, it is easy to control individuals, to make them feel alone. It is difficult to control people in groups. I am not asking you to join a national organization. I am asking you to start a neighborhood group—a root level group. Some already exist, but many, many more are needed. Your group should get together as often as you reasonably can just to talk. You may want to set-up organized meetings, or unorganized bar-be-ques. You may have a stated agenda, or you may let anything come up as it will. However, you should be willing to get out of your house and go to these meetings, and host them yourself as you can. Do not be afraid to speak out! Let your voice be heard! And most importantly, let your group’s voice be heard. Don’t be afraid to get together as a group and let your representatives in local, state, or national government know how your group feels.

It is easy for a politician to ignore individuals, or categorize them broadly. It is much more difficult to ignore the opinions of a group of people, especially when they vote for your office. All of the lobbyist campeign money in the world is useless if your constituents refuse to vote for you.

My thought is that as these neighborhood groups should invite their representatives in the local, state, and national governments to come to meetings sponsored by these groups and talk to the people who live in the neighborhood. That way, people won’t be relying on news organizations to ask their representatives tough questions—they can ask them themselves. In addition, these neighborhood groups could make their concerns known to their elected representatives directly, instead of hoping that they are covered in some kind of opinion poll, or that their letters make it through the politician’s staffers. These groups may want to publish local newsletters that could be distributed online and to the door of their neighbors. They could endorse candidates who are responsive to the need of the neighborhood, and withhold endorsement of candidates that are not. Or, if neither option is palatable, you could always help one of your own members run for the office!

Also, groups of this kind could get together with other like-minded groups, and pool their resources to get better responses. Multiple groups around a city could work together to set up debates between candidates, or have round-table discussions.

More importantly, your children and grandchildren should see you doing this. It is important not just to participate in democracy, but to teach the next generation how to interact and to know what democracy looks like. Currently, most of them think it looks like talking heads on CNN or C-SPAN. Let them know real democracy looks like people talking to each other, not people talking at each other. Don’t let them be intimidated by elected officials—they’re just people who were elected to office.

While it is probably too late for this kind of organization to have much impact on the current election, it is certain to me that now is the right time to start organizing these groups for all of the elections in the future. Potential recruits for neighborhood groups are self-identifying at this time. How better to know if someone might be interested in joining than to look for signs emblazoned with the name of some politician sticking into someone’s lawn? Is that not an invitation to talk?

If we are to take back our government from the lobbyists and special interests, it is going to be through this kind of local change. By paying attention to our government and closely watching what is going on, we will counter all of that special interest money going into the campaign treasuries. That isn’t just the beginning of campaign finance reform--it’s the beginning of government reform. Most importantly it doesn’t require an act of Congress, it can’t be vetoed by the President, and it can’t be overturned by the Supreme Court. That is true Democracy.

If you are a patriot, a person who believes in the United States and spreading democracy, then you have no excuse for not starting a neighborhood political group or joining one that already exists. Now is the time. Join in real Democracy and do more than just vote.

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