“We, the People,” are upset and angry. And we’ve been this way throughout recent years at least since Bush vs. Gore in 2000. That decision, however much we may doubt its legitimacy as a proper exercise of the judicial function, verified by reputable post-election analyses as accurately indicating how the election would have turned out in any case. Concerning as that is to some, we’ve moved on and covered much. Right now we have a smorgasbord to dine on.
Rolling Stone covers, Salon commentaries, jury verdicts, state “nullifications,” ALEC, “Tea-Partiers,” Left-wingers, Right-wingers, Treyvon Martin and George Zimmerman victimizations, “Stand Your Ground,” “Self-Defense,” Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Bradley Manning, NSA, CIA, FBI, any Cheney, Obama, Obamacare, The Mainstream Media, Fox News, The New Media…
Take your pick and don’t leave the table hungry if you want more or bring your own if I’ve left something out, either because I didn’t think of it off the top of my head or just missed it completely on a Sunday morning before checking the news to see if something new is out there to add to the list.
Opinions fly about, some well-reasoned but many if not most just angry assertions about the motives of people holding contrary opinions and many of these expressed in vulgar terms not intended to persuade but to insult. These are usually read only by those who hold much the same opinions. Few of these opinions, even the most thoughtfully developed ones, are actually making it across the divide to be scrutinized and evaluated by those who think differently.
This back and forth within each side is described as the positioning of the “bases” of a side’s supporters. The participants know from the outset that they aren’t persuading anyone new, just maintaining strength through unity.
There are a number of factors easily identified as contributing to all this anger: the economic near-collapse in 2008, the slow recovery, bailouts, foreclosures, job losses, a growing sense among some of privilege and among others of an unscrupulous and unconcerned elite as well as the election of an inexperienced and not well-known senator to be the nation’s first African-American president in a country that still has race problems and the, to my mind even more insidious problem, an unconscious racism among some of those most committed to the ideal of equality before the law for all Americans. A sense of frustration at the ending of two wars as no clear cut desired end result was obtained from the first and that is the most likely outcome of the second, even as events in other parts of the world demand that the US play a leadership role, if not pre-emptively as some would have, at least as the last major power. Alongside it is the concern that the homefront itself is in need of serious attention if the US is to remain the country most of us have seen as offering the best environment for achieving one’s personal goals and living a good and satisfying life.
We, the People, have much to dine upon but we seem to have decided to throw the food at each other rather than eat it, chewing thoroughly. We are mad at the banquet.
I think there are two possible explanations, neither of which is very useful except as a check on how we are to respond to the future we face how we deal with what appears to be our appetite.
One is that we are just “raw,” skinned by all that has happened.
Anything that touches us anywhere hurts or at least is perceived as a possible hurt. We react immediately, thoughtlessly and angrily against anything that comes our way and displeases us or has that potential. We don’t sort out moral, legal, philosophical, scientific bases for our reactions and think through their consequences or what the implications of our feelings might be for other feelings we hold equally but that are not in play on the current issue (This is hard to do when not abraded, the more so if in pain.) We personalize without thinking. If the Koch brothers could have done in their lifetimes all the harm to the country that has been attributed to them, they would be the two most effective figures in the last 60-plus years and would not have had a chance to build their fortune. If the Mainstream Media had so distorted the truth as claimed there would be no-one left to know it. If Rolling Stones using a widely used picture of one of the Boston bombers so “glamorized terrorism,” why was that not true when other publications used the same picture? Are we “judging a book by its cover?” Is there no ethical obligation to read the article before pronouncing on the editors’ decision to use the picture? No, we are angry and we want to be and we don’t want some damn Sunday morning blogger pronouncing on what our ethics should be either!
The other explanation is that we have become hard callused by recent years and crave to feel something, anything, that restores us to the basically good people we had thought we or at least most of us were.
Lashing out about racism over a jury verdict, indicting “Stand Your Ground” laws passed by legislatures properly elected by we, the people, rubbing Mitch McConnell’s nose in his pronouncement about making Obama a one-term president, pro-gun control people as experts on TV saying that the Constitution says nothing about self-defense as if the Constitution were the sole or even the major basis of most of the laws of the land, questioning jury verdicts on the basis of one juror’s anonymous interview about how she understood what was happening in the jury room within the minds of all six, whether or not we think the jury came to the right conclusion (and often neglecting that a close following of the TV coverage gave a viewer more information than the jury was allowed to have because it was sent out of the room frequently), pronouncing people with whose views we disagree to be “stupid” when all evidence is that they are anything but stupid, they simply have a different purpose they are pursuing from that which we think is right as in “Ted Cruz is stupid.” These make us feel better, superior, more like we are the north star for what should and shouldn’t be than we have been able to feel through so much that was difficult to understand or even get reliable information about in recent economics, world affairs, 9/11, terrorist attacks, homeland and national security, cyberwar, Wikileaks, “enhanced interrogation methods,” torture, “state secrets doctrine” and more that we had no say about and when we asked we were told to go away, it would be dangerous if “We, the people” knew these things.
Of course, it is possible to suffer from both abrasions and calluses and feel little need to make the distinction. What does seem true is there there is anger and now nearly every news event contains something to provoke it.
We, the people, might rightly, I think, be angry at ourselves. We vote less, we leave elections in the hands of people whose positions we don’t know or often even bother to ask. They act for themselves because they have seen how little We, the people, care what they do if it doesn’t affect us negatively and how generous we will be if we think they are doing something that will positively affect us.
The time has come I hope that We, the people, will begin to hold ourselves accountable for being so angry. We will investigate for ourselves through the amazing array of resources available to us how our leaders have behaved with respect to the issues we believe to be of highest priority for the ‘general welfare’ before they became our leaders. However good or bad we may find them in what we learn of their personal lives before presenting themselves for leadership positions, we will refrain from allowing those feelings to affect our judgements about what they have done that has public importance. When they are in office, however much we like them personally and however enthusiastically we supported their candidacies, we will hold them to account for what they do, not what they say or how likeable they are. We can and must do it civilly and politely or we will lose our country and our system. We are only responsible for what we say and do in this regard, not for how uncivil or impolite others are, we are not charged with policing others on this score.
We will learn about the items on the buffet table of issues before us so that we can spot an “expert” who really isn’t one and listen to one who is. We will take seriously what we learn, even what we learn that we do not like, if the source is truly reputable. We will hold media of all types accountable for stirring up emotions without adding substance or content and steer them to items of substance above all. (We will use our remote controls to ensure they get our message and move back and forth to check on their progress.)
We will “read, mark and inwardly digest” the Constitution and what it says and doesn’t say. Where today’s practice seems at odds with what it says we will inquire deeper into the history of its interpretation to discover how we got from its words to today’s practices. We will accept that there is more to the law than the Constitution, state legislative action or executive action provide. We have a deep common law background for most laws that we encounter and few of us have ever actually had to confront a constitutional question. When something about the law “looks funny” to us we will probe history before pronouncing, cf a commentator saying on cable news that the Constitution says nothing about “self-defense” as if that right had no pre-constitutional existence in law or that the Constitution was the sole source of our laws. The law is not always obvious but it is almost always a result of history and what we say about it should reflect that awareness.
We will stop using the word “politics” pejoratively. Of course what we are talking about is politics and politicians, political operatives, political parties, etc. That is what this is about for both those we define as the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Its respectable but that is beside the point: 300-plus million people cannot function in a democratic system without politics. Tyrannies, dictatorships, autocracies can often be without politics; democracies require politics.
We will stop talking about “special interests” when we mean the interests other groups have that we don’t share. It would be nearly impossible to find someone whose interests are not represented by some organized group that employs lobbyists and even more difficult to find a representative or senator who did not need to hear what those lobbyists have to say about important issues before casting an informed vote.
We, the people, will recognize that if it is not as we think it should be, we may have to seek out people to run for office, vet them thoroughly, work diligently for those we select according to their needs and our gifts, from providing strategy to planting yard signs and ringing door-bells, sometimes only to have the latter slammed in our faces.
The duty of citizens is not outrage and anger, it is participation and engagement. It is tougher work than most of us have done. Most of our political leadership has had at best only our vote but more is required. The candidate may be able to bring about “hope” but he or she cannot bring about “change” so long as we are content to think we are participating by hurling epithets at people with whom we disagree. The election of 2014 is important in and of itself but also as the initiation of the setting for the larger election of 2016. It is a good time to begin a more active participation than most of us have undertaken previously. Our values may not prevail – clearly some won’t – but the experience of participation and engagement will find its use almost immediately.
Anger will subside for lack of time for it. We are not citizens for the purpose of expressing our anger at other citizens but for the purpose of ensuring that the important items on the smorgasbord of issues we are angry about is thoroughly consumed by the processes of our democracy and well-digested.
The consequences of our not “upping” our level of actual political engagement to secure our values is that the people who are now past that anger point and into effective action, whether “Tea-Partiers” or “left-wing of the left wingers,” will continue to decide who makes and enforces our school board policies, city ordinances, county ordinances, state laws, and federal laws employing our “food throwing” as a cheap megaphone to secure their purposes among others who won’t engage in more than voting either. Beyond the anger stage, the people we are railing about have left We, the people, way behind. We must catch up with them and put ourselves to the real test of citizenship, acting the part.
If, “We, the People” are the inheritors of the American Revolution, we must see it passing us by and take our leave from anger to get in front of that revolution once more. And with that, enjoy your lunch. I’m sure there is more to eat coming…