Wednesday, September 07, 2011

"Citizenship in the Classic Sense"

Another wrap on this awful decade of American history, from Democracy Journal:

It’s been a sad, lost, and enervating decade. We’ve had a few successes. No further successful attacks have been visited upon us. We have done serious damage to Al Qaeda, including the breathtaking assault on its leader. It’s probably not a coincidence that the major successes of the last 10 years have emanated from the one public institution in this country—the military—that is not the subject of constant pitched ideological warfare.
The contributors who lament particular things that have happened in America are really lamenting in different ways their disappointment that here finally, after years of toxic political arguments that culminated in debates over semen-stained dresses and hanging chads, was an event that should have summoned the best qualities from our political class, and in us; but alas, too little oxygen existed in our system for those best qualities to open up and flourish.

For my own part, I started down the path of "citizenship in the classic sense" in 2004. In 2001, I still trusted people in charge of things to get it right. I might not agree with everything they did, I may despise some of their decisions, but I trusted things to turn out OK in the end. Such trust eroded for the next 3 years.

After watching the joke of the Kerry candidacy, and wondering why there was such a disconnect between what I saw on television and what I saw in reality, I decided that if I felt a lack of agency in my own governance, I needed to be a part of the major political organization to which I had the most in common - the Democratic Party.

What I found there were good people with good hearts who welcomed my participation in ways I never expected. But I also found confusion over what was happening to the country, and why they were so easily demonized by people on television and radio. The more "activist" among us constantly blamed national problems and national individuals as if they knew them personally.

Those were problems that few people could do anything about on the local level. Those were problems that few people got involved to do something about. But when we started talking about local and state issues, and doing things about that? People showed up. They got energized. They got involved. Why?

There are two kinds of people who "participate" in politics. One kind only wants to complain about things. You don't have to go to meetings and organize events and volunteer your free time to complain about things. All you have to do is turn on the television or radio, read your favorite blogs, and occasionally attend an event or rally to put yourself on display with flags and hats and buttons to prove how like-minded you are to like-minded people. With this, you never have to challenge yourself or expose yourself to opposing points of view. These folks make the "big national" events look important because they'll show up in a crowd or pay for a ticket to see their favorite personality. For them, politics plays a similar role that rock concerts, comic book conventions, and movie stars do for popular culture.

The other kind wants agency. This is a smaller group of folks. They see problems and want to find solutions to those problems. This requires work. Sometimes you have to convince people that a problem exists in the first place, and that they can do something about it. The former is an easier task (most of the time) than the latter.

Agency requires "showing up" and not just on voting day. And not just on rally day where you hold hands and sing songs. It requires talking to people and researching problems and solutions. It requires convincing people who might disagree with you that your opinion is valid, that your proposed solution is the one that should be tried. It often requires interacting with other people who may not share your points of view in many ways, but have a common stake in addressing a specific problem. And you can take big hits when the solution you propose isn't the right one or doesn't work.

These folks are trying to be in the room when a decision is made, or at least get someone into the room. It requires work, usually unpaid work, usually boring work. This stuff ain't easy, yet every political decision is made by people like this; usually at the local or state level, because that's where one person or group's voice is the loudest.

My "citizenship in the classic sense" continued in August, 2005 when I watched the national government all but abandon a major US metropolitan area. The lie had been exposed about the people in charge, at all levels. In 2006, I packed up all my stuff and came to New Orleans. Down here, there is an entire city of people looking for agency. Some folks are more engaged than others, some folks are more effective than others, some folks are still figuring out what is and isn't possible. Of course there are still huge populations who continue to resign their fate to the decisions of others, but here there is such a robust involvement and participation at so many levels here than it was the first thing I thought of when I read those words.

The fear that infected America post 9-11 needs to be replaced with the resiliency that took root in New Orleans post-flood.

(HT:Andrew Sullivan)


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