Surviving the Morning After (Redux)

There is something to be said for social media. I’m just not sure what it is.

I signed back on to Facebook yesterday, hoping against hope that the tenor of all those political squabbles because of which I signed off in the first place might have changed. I discovered (sadly, as I feared) that some things never change. But if you watched President Obama’s victory speech on Tuesday/Wednesday, you too might have heard a statement that’s stuck with me. (And, by the way, for all those folks out there who’ve been going on and on about the “inspirational” nature of the speech: Go back and check out the one from 2008. It’s pretty much the same speech. Which is a tad worrisome. But I digress.)

The president noted that, while at times our national conversation may experience what might be called a discursive breakdown, that is in itself a sign of democracy at work, and a privilege which should be cherished. There are, he reminded us, people around the world laying down their lives “just for a chance to argue.” This is a sobering thought.

So, my Facebook friends…Fire away.

Meanwhile, let’s turn our attention to Mitt Romney’s concession speech. I’ve also been hearing heart-wrenching things about this speech. For Pete’s sake…Chris Matthews, with tears in his eyes and a cowlick on his head, called it a “moment of wonder,” a great act of statesmanship. Well, okay then. For my part, I thought it was a fairly standard piece of political pleasantry. He conceded, which in itself is to be admired, given the tendency of presidential elections since 2000 to degenerate into litigious circus-acts. But the speech–sorry, nothing special.

But in the midst of the speech, he too said something which caught my ear (and which I hope was truly sincere). He said: “The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.” Now, given the partisan gridlock of the last several years, the combative nature of pretty much every congressional statement made on any news network by anyone anywhere, and the fact that the exact same folks–with a few important exceptions–are back in the capitol, I find it hard to take that comment with anything but a giant grain of salt. Especially coming from the figurehead of the party that stated its purpose explicitly, not as governing the nation, but as preventing Obama from scoring a second term. But, cynical as I tend to be, I really, really, REALLY hope he meant what he was saying. Even more importantly, I hope his party, leadership and constituency, was listening when he said it. Beyond that, I hope all the Democrats out there quit their cheering and jeering long enough to hear him, too.

Over the coming days, weeks, months, and years, as our political discourse ebbs and flows, as we trade digital punches and counterpunches on Facebook and Twitter, I hope we all strive to balance these two vital features of a healthy democracy in action: the freedom to argue, and the willingness to listen. I hope that the arguments we have are on the important issues facing us all, each one of us as American citizens, and not over whether or not the president’s accent changed when he went down South. I hope we remember (myself included) that at the end of the day, when all is said and done, counting on each other must trump counting coup, that all the insults in the world never fixed an economy or got anyone a job. What moves us forward is us, plain and simple, not I but we, not my needs but yours. The US of A.

Yesterday I Voted. Then I Littered.

Yesterday I betook myself to one of the local early voting locations and cast my ballot. Afterwards, as usual, they gave me a little sticker declaring to the world that “I Voted!” I detached the sticker from its backing and placed it on my shirt and blithely tossed the rest into the passenger seat, rolled down my windows (as it was one of the few Texas days nice enough to do so), and headed for the grocery store. What happened next was a tad predictable. As I pulled out of the parking lot–hard left on Bosque to avoid being creamed from the right–the breeze streamed through the interior of the car and took hold of the waste paper lying in my front seat, picked it up, and tossed it out the window. Yes, my friends, I messed with Texas.

But that’s not where I’m going with this. Instead, think metaphorically with me. Most of us–myself included–could describe our political activity within the very narrow parameters detailed above. We show up to the polls, cast a vote, plaster on the sticker, and head for the hills…until such time as the next election calls us out to do the same again. We vote, then we litter. And as we leave the polling center, some guy in a lawn chair outside hollers at us: “Thanks for voting!” As if we have played the only part we can play in the political process. Which is exactly what the media and the mainstream politicians want us to think. We vote, and then we litter. We slap a tag on ourselves–Checked by Polling Center #4–and we forget about it. We go on about our business. From the polling booth to the supermarket, and beyond! Granted, we may spend several months beforehand beating our loved ones about the head and face with opposing (and oppositional) viewpoints, but for the most part, we vote, and then we litter.

Meanwhile, for two to four years, nothing changes. Politicians squabble, legislation comes and legislation stagnates, the media tells us what we actually want (being as we are too stupid to figure it out for ourselves), and we watch and pray, for the end is near.

So, to my New Cycle’s resolution: I will make sure from this day forward that the polls become the least of my political activity. There is more to be done, of greater import, in the space between even-numbered Novembers than during them. There are things that talking heads may talk about, but about which they will never do a thing…because if they do, they won’t have anything left to talk about. They won’t have any convenient anchors to hang around their opponents’ necks during the next political popularity contest. Anchors, by the way, that between elections are kept in storage around our necks.

There are things only we can (and will) do. If we want reform, we the people, we have to go and get it, because people who pose for a living are never going to give it to us. There’s a reason pundits go on about grassroots movements: they are truly the only kind of movement that has ever effected any significant change, and this is true because those movements are composed of people who have more to lose than TV time and a government salary, and who aren’t guaranteed a lecture circuit or a news network commentator’s position in the event of losing their jobs.

So this time, don’t vote and then litter. Don’t pull away from the polling place with a self-satisfied feeling of having “played your part.” Instead, take hold of the dissatisfaction you’ve been feeling for the last two to four years, and find a way to do something about it. Because nothing will ever change unless we change it.

Straightforward?

A letter to the editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald suggested that “the first and primary purpose of the government is to protect the people.” Agreed. But are the implications of this statement, as it subsequently suggests, “very straightforward”?

What is involved in the protection of the people? Funding of police and armed forces? Fencing off our southern border? Or perhaps something more substantive, such as easily affordable health care (protection of existing life) or continued subsidies for higher education (protection of future well-being)? Might we think in terms of protection for, not just protection from? Also, what exactly does it mean to “live within the law”? Is it enough to protect those who follow the letter of it, or should we also seek to chastise those who circumvent its spirit?

In reality, there is very little about these questions that is straightforward. And herein lies our problem. “Straightforward” keeps us from effective and repectful dialogue, which is what we desperately need in order for anyone’s interests truly to be protected. Ultimately, “straightforward” ensures we will learn nothing, because it makes us believe we know everything. Perhaps what is really lacking in our society at this moment is a little more “confusion on government’s responsibility.” Or at least a greater willingness to admit that we all have questions, and someone else might just have some answers.

What Can I Possibly Say?

Like many of my fellow Americans, I cannot wait for November 7. At this point, I don’t even have the strength to qualify that with any sort of “as long as” modifier. Election cycles tire me. They anger me. Not, mind you, because of the expression of opinions and ideas opposed to my own. The freedom to hold one’s views, idiosyncratic as they may be, without constraint from any outside agency, governmental, religious, or social, is the essence of true personhood, and personhood is the essence of democracy. Indeed, without idiosyncracies it could be argued that democracy has no meaning. So, by all means, voice it loud and voice it strong!

At the same time, though, voice it constructively. Voice it in such a way that people are inspired to listen (or at the very least, so that they are not inspired to show up at your house one dark and dreary night with an armload of torches and pitchforks). This requires a return to what might be called universal statesmanship. Too often, we call down curses from heaven on the heads of our major political candidates for behaving like so many feces-tossing primates on campaign tours and in campaign commercials only to log right on to Facebook or Myspace or Twitter–pick your poison–to do the exact same sort of thing ourselves. Each of us has the right, even the responsibility, to engage in political debate. However, we also carry the responsibility to engage in said debate in a manner respectful of all the others out there who are attempting, as we are, to make themselves heard.

It has been suggested that during this election cycle, social media users are losing friends faster than they can make them, to a large degree because of political commentary AND THE WAY IN WHICH THAT COMMENTARY IS PRESENTED. It is as if we have forgotten that in the end we all want the same thing, for ourselves and our friends and families: a good life in a prosperous country, playing an appropriate role in a peaceful world. We want our lives to mean something. We want to be proud of the nation we inhabit, the country that we share. No one in this conversation is intent on voting in the destruction of the United States, no matter what any given news outlet may insist on telling us. In the end, we all want the same thing. We just want it from different directions, and with different emphases. And in that realization lies the seed of useful debate.

It has also been argued by some that the proliferation of social networking is a booster in the development of democratic expression. I could not disagree more. When I am willing to say something to another human being in a vicious and hateful way simply because of the physical distance created by Facebook or Twitter, I would suggest that perhaps that something does not really need to be said, or at the very least might benefit from rewording. Remember when our parents used to say “If you’ve got nothing nice to say, it’s better to say nothing at all”? In the information age, when we are freed by technological advances to insult others and run away, when all that’s required to belittle our fellow Americans is a user name and password, I think a new adage is in order: “If it’s something you wouldn’t say to a person’s face, you might want to reconsider what you’re saying.”

James Madison supported a multitude of voices because in that cacophony lies the greatest preventative measure against tyranny. The person with two eyes sees better than the person with one, and the person with two ears hears more clearly than the person with none. We tend to attack that multitude because it keeps us from getting our way, from seeing our pet project ushered onto the national stage. What we must recognize is that the voice that stymies us is also the voice that protects us. If I somehow am able to silence you, then another’s ability to silence me is increased through my own efforts. The harder I try to hurt you, the greater the likelihood that I will end by hurting myself.

I will not argue the assertion that Facebook may be the means of our salvation (at least in the area of civil discourse), but that all depends on how we use it. If we use it irresponsibly, it may also be the means of our destruction. No greater engine of democratic debate has yet been imagined than that of social media, but the truth is that Madison was only half right: the multitude of voices in and of itself can be as dangerous as it is helpful. If that multitude thrives on and is fueled by anger and hatred, if it becomes one more field of battle in the “us against them” war that is contemporary American political action, then it can only harm the interests of our nation (not to mention our personal relationships). If, however–and this is the IF that counts–the social network is able fully to embrace the “social” side of its existence, if it is used to connect us with each other rather than becoming another reminder of all the things which supposedly divide us, then we’re onto something. Then we’re headed towards a healthier, more fully fleshed understanding of what democracy ought to be: a conversation among equals in the interest of a better world.