Continuing my overview of Ralph Nader's book, The Seventeen Solutions. Click here to get the rest of the series.
12. Reengage with Civic Life
There are a lot of articles written each year about the abuses of power (and with the nasty guy in office we’re either going to get a lot more or criticism or the media will be silenced). Many of these articles trumpet Something Must Be Done!
But these articles rarely spell out what must be done and how a citizen is to go about doing it.
That citizen has not done these kinds of things before (though that changed for a lot of them last month), so here come the excuses: “I don’t know what to do.” “I don’t have the time.” “I don’t want to risk the backlash.” (This is one reason why the best people refuse to run for office). “Would it really make a difference anyhow? The Big Boys will get whatever they want.”
These statements of apathy are a sign of powerlessness. And much of that is because we’re not used to civic engagement and not skilled in doing it. We have a democracy gap at the lowest level. If “Eternal vigilance is the price for liberty,” we’ve forgotten how to pay that price.
Start by getting people into small groups to talk. First to get to know one another, then to kvetch about what the various levels of gov’t are not doing or doing wrong, and the to listen to experienced citizen activists talk about how much these small groups have accomplished in the past.
As meetings continue, talk about what kind of world we want to live in now and what we want for our descendants. Then talk about the skills that are needed and who has which skills or is willing to learn them. Who can give practical advice? Who can review lawmaker voting records? Who can run meetings? Who can lobby? Fundraise?
There are plenty of places to take classes in cooking or yoga. But, in spite of the empty storefronts across America, there are no storefront classes in civic engagement. We’re a culture of self-improvement and instant gratification. But this work requires working for the improvement of others and a great deal of patience.
Si Kahn wrote a political memoir, Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble Rousers, Activists, and Quiet Lovers of Justice. A summary of some of his pointers:
* Look for common self-interests.
* If institutions or people of power won’t join your cause convince them it’s in their self-interest to stay out of the fight.
* Imagine the instant before victory. Work backward from there.
* Advocate for the positive as well as oppose the negative.
* You can ask a few people to do several complicated things. You can ask masses of people to do one simple thing.
* Citizens, no matter how much they hate each other, can find a common connection.
* Citizens are always partly united and partly divided. Reinforce the unity and compensate for the divisions.
* Demonstrations worked in the 1960s and will work again today.
* Fellow justice workers need to know the risks – what might go wrong and what loss they might suffer.
* Frame questions so that others will want to answer, but will need to think deeply to get that answer.
* Laughter really is therapeutic and hope does heal.
* Avoid the arrogance of thinking you know what is right for other people.
* When those who have been without power gain it, there is no guarantee that they will exercise it more democratically than those who have had it before.
* Use the power of culture to help others see beyond their own tribe.
* Accusing you of inciting violence is a tactic to discredit what you do. Driving an exploitative enterprise out of business is not violence, it is justice.
* Personal relations still count. When recruiting volunteers let them choose from a list of campaign needs.
* We can’t predict what we can accomplish, so never compromise with injustice.
* Dr. King’s Beloved Community is not in the future. It happens when we walk and work together.
Back to Nader’s suggestions…
Get the kids involved so they know as much about civic life as they do about their smartphone. Visit the local court, the city council meeting, the source of their drinking water, their emergency services. Help teachers do this by campaigning against evaluation of education through testing and for evaluation through understanding the community, through diligence, stamina, curiosity, creativity, and idealism.
That last one makes me consider that politicians want education defined through testing because it is a way to make the students ignorant of civic life – and less likely to challenge their control.
Parents can help fill that void (and prod teachers) through field trips (mentioned above) and books, such as The Kid’s Guide to Social Action. And when schools tackle civic action it need not be expensive. The laboratory is the community.
I think we might be back where we started – with the excuses. I’d be interested in being part of one of these citizen groups. But am I the one to go knocking on doors to invite neighbors to a meeting and then somehow lead the group? See the comment about who has what skills.