Affecting political change: a suggestion

Lately I’ve been getting into some debates on Facebook about the nature of political change. My position in this discussion has always been that we have to avail ourselves of the tools given to us — free speech, right to vote, access to government officials, etc. — and use every means necessary to get what we want. For some people I’ve discussed this with, my opinion is incorrigible because it includes participating in the government that they loathe so much. My point of view is that we are governed whether we like it or not, so we might as well learn the rules better than those who govern and make the changes we can. My reasoning is that this has worked before: civil rights amendment, black suffrage, women’s suffrage, poll taxes, etc. Their reasoning is that since the government is corrupt, nothing will change, so why bother participating.

As an aside, this position aggravates me to no end. Here’s why. Imagine that 100 people are all stuck in a burning building and are told that the only way to get out is to build a machine on the bottom floor and that at least 75 people have to work on the machine in order to finish it in time. Immediately, 25 people start protesting those who started the fire and refuse to help build the machine. While that’s happening, 33 people head down to the first floor to start building the machine that will be able to break them out. We’re now left with 42 people to help build the machine. If they all helped, then the machine could be built and everyone could escape. Unfortunately, 25 of those people didn’t pay attention to the rules (to remedy this in reality, please read “The Federalist Papers” and “The United States Constitution” and take particular note of the flexible structure that is in place and how change can be affected both from within and without) and head up to the top floor to build their own machine. The result? Everyone dies. That’s why I hate the “protest is the only way to change things” line of thinking: it doesn’t address the problem in the way that creates a solution.

So let’s take a look at this “protest only” method. It’s usually run by a professional protester or activist who has done this kind of thing before. It’s well-organized and scripted, and always presents a particular vibe to outside observers. All of this is tightly controlled. The emphasis with this method is on volume and presence. From my experience in participating, reporting on, and monitoring these kinds of gatherings there is usually a unifying goal bringing a number of people together in one area for the purpose of visually showing how many people agree with one thing. In some cases the participants may not be clear on why they are all there (later adopters of the “Occupy” movement), but support whatever they feel is the purpose. There is also plenty of thematic signage, uniform chanting, and hard-to-understand bullhorn-based speeches. Flash mobs, flyers, community food locations, and distrust of all government sources are also common. In some cases these protests can become violent and dangerous. This depends on the purpose and location of the protest, of course, and more of these kinds of gatherings are peaceful. Civil Disobedience and ending revolution are all possible outcomes of this approach.

I have nothing against protesting and activism. There is a strength and passion to this method that cannot be denied. The media loves images of people with signs sharing their discontent, and quick sound bytes can be easily generated from the groups’ slogans and chants (“Hell no, we won’t go!” etc). If you want quick attention to a current issue, this is a great method. Many movements were started this way, and many more will be as well. The problem with this method is contained in its very DNA: what gathers in one place must eventually disperse or keep doing something new to maintain its energy. Entropy ensues. The message gets lost. This is the flash mob of social progress. Today’s issue is tomorrow’s trivia question. The movement that arose like wildfire fanned by the hot breath of mass media dies by the same group’s smothering blanket of public attention and advertising dollars. Revolutions eventually become the next target of protest — French Revolution, Russian Student Revolt — and the heroes of the picket lines — Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin — are just as quickly demonized by future revolutionaries.

Protest by itself as a method for changing policy doesn’t do anything. Protest is a means by which an issue gets noticed. Once that happens, there is still work to do in order to change policy. Our government is — like it or not — established by those who vote. And as such, the people in government are only beholden to those who voted for them, not the people in the park or street protesting. In fact, statistics are telling the government that those people don’t vote.

You want policy change? You contact your rep over and over again. You can even tell him you’ll be at the rally tomorrow, but you need to contact him. It doesn’t matter if you voted for him or not, you’re still beholden to his decisions. While your at it get everyone at your protest to contact their reps over and over again. If a representative’s constituents present an overwhelming — or even slightly-whelming — position, he has to listen if he wants to get elected again. And don’t give me that crap about corporations and bribery. If he doesn’t get votes, he won’t be there to get bribes. We’re still in control if we want to be.

Case in point: PIPA/SOPA became a massive issue started online. All of those people posting in forums, blacking out sites, creating comics also did something else: they called their representatives. The sponsor of PIPA pulled the bill. He pulled the bill he wrote because people from his district told him to. In the case of SOPA there’s still work to do, but the vote was delayed indefinitely as a direct result of the voting public contacting their representatives.

Counter-case in point: Scott Brown (R MA) was elected to the US Senate by a majority of voters during a low-turnout election. Republicans knew that in order to try and block the health insurance reform bill, Martha Coakley would need to lose. They turned out in droves, while the democrats from a democratic state assumed victory and stayed away — even though a bulk of them would have been participating in cheering for the health insurance reform. Brown won and voted no. Voter turnout had a direct impact on the process in Washington, DC.

There is nothing wrong with protesting, but going around insisting that it’s the only way to affect change in government is absurd at best and dangerous at worst. Apathy is what your opponents bank on. They assume that if you’re in a picket line, you’re not at the polls. Unfortunately that’s more often than not the case. How about surprising the bastards and doing both? Here’s why: effectiveness at the polls is achieved through mass participation. Protesting gets people’s attention, voting tells the system what they want. If we can use both together, then that’s something that could finally tip the scales in our favor.

As an example, let’s look at China and Iran. Protests in those countries have made the news, changed our minds about the nature of social media, gave us some shocking imagery, and maybe inspired some of us along the way. However, little in the way of progress can be reported as a direct result of those protests. Why? Because there’s no recourse for those protesting to directly control the actions of government. Because that’s what voting is: a group of people coming together to express their approval or dissent with issues and people. It only works if we all do it.

In closing, I’d like to point out that a vote-based system of government is very grass roots and egalitarian in nature. It requires broad communication of issues and ideas as well as coordination of efforts and people across social and financial divides. In short, voting en masse is a grass roots, people-powered method of governing. I’m constantly told, though, that the representative democracy we have is selfish and doesn’t account for a greater good. It’s pretty obvious to me that unless we all work together, the building’s going to burn down and we’re all going to die. How’s that for greater good?

Grazing in the grass roots

I had an opportunity to participate in a small part of what is becoming a large movement in support of the “Move to Amend” campaign to adopt an amendment to the United States Constitution that declares in no uncertain terms that corporations are not people. The local group here is comprised of a handful of passionate and determined men and women — veterans of progressive campaigns and protests all — who want nothing more than the elimination of corporate control over elected officials. I couldn’t agree more with the aims of this group. There’s obviously a corruption, and it can be readily traced back to lobbying, corporate interests, and campaign donations. All of which needs to stop and control of elected officials needs to be returned to the voters for whom they serve. So while I support the movement and its aims, I feel that there are talking points that are not being addressed in the public discourse that are an essential part of deciding if this movement is worth supporting.

Firstly, there are two versions of the amendment: the version I linked above, and the one penned by Senator Bernie Sanders here [PDF]. They are actually quite different from each other, and address different points of concerns. The MtA version attempts to establish that a) all corporations are not people, that b) money is specifically not speech and b) neither a nor b apply to the press. Bernie’s version states simply that for-profit corporations would no longer be allowed to participate — through financial means — in the electoral process. These are two fundamentally different statements and to put our support behind a “non-corporate-personhood” movement would seem to imply that they are both the same. Which to choose, which to choose. I will address the specific wordings of each in a later post, but suffice it to say that we have to either merge them or pick one to support or all of our efforts are for naught. For the sake of this post, let’s assume that we’ve settled on a compromise version of the two that includes proper wording addressing the MtA points.

The second talking point is the question of what will happen if the amendment succeeds. It seems like a simple question because we tend to see the success and lack thereof as a binary result. On the one hand corporations are removed from matters of free speech, their money is kept out of politics, and people will regain control of their representatives. Without this amendment, we imagine a country where more money means more speech, where politicians make decisions based on who their largest donors are, where the voting public is unwittingly duped into electing a puppet of some foreign power. I submit however that it is not so cut and dried as it would seem.

For instance, in the case of success will the corruption we’re railing against be cured? Will this amendment keep corporations from establishing some kind of legalized slush fund through which individuals can send donations or pay for campaigns on behalf of the corporation? Will this amendment keep corporations from providing ever-increasing funds to lobbyists and directly influence law making after the election process? Will this amendment in fact make elected officials more subservient to their constituents and less so to their donors? It’s reasonable to assume given the specificity of the language and purpose that the answer to all these questions is no. Let’s suppose, though, we live in a country where the press is free, money is not the same as speech (which means it can be regulated far more than just through time, manner, and place), and corporations are not covered under the Bill of Rights.

In this new country, the government is allowed to regulate the flow of money that supports individuals who are trying to speak because money is not speech and — given the precedent of Citizens United — could not legally be used for speech. If an individual is seeking a grant from the government or a government-funded agency, that grant could be denied if the money was going to be used to perform “speech”. Could a corporation rent a hall in town to present a documentary or educational film? What are we limiting by saying money is not protected speech?

Corporations in our new country would also no longer be covered by the Bill of Rights because of our new amendment. The government would be able to freely seize, shut down, censure, or otherwise inhibit the activities of any corporation regardless of due process, etc. This could be Monsanto, or your local church (a not-for-profit corporation). The Bill of Rights is what keeps the government from doing that. If it no longer applies to corporations, they are removed from its protections. Extending this a bit further, would a work-around be that corporate rules are changed so that they can be represented by a person? Can the chairman of the board work on behalf of the corporation, but still be protected by our new amendment and the Bill of Rights? It’s not unreasonable to believe so since this has not come up as a point of discussion.

Hyperbole aside, are these likely events? Given the history of government behavior when given the latitude for that behavior, it is safe to assume that we are not outside the realm of possibility. England, Italy, Japan, China, Germany, Russia, and the United States all have glaring histories that show how their government behaves when given the right mixture of latitude, reason, and will. Could this amendment provide or be a catalyst for that kind of mixture? It’s possible given what laws are passed afterwards and how desperate certain parties are. While the future is never certain nor predictable, we can safely say that there are unforeseen circumstances that are worse than what we face now.

Lastly, we’re presented with a state of affairs where our chosen version of the amendment doesn’t pass. What if what we’re left with is a post-2009 world where corporations spending money on campaigns is a form of speech, where they can create Superpacs and support a candidate? What is our recourse to such a world? In fact, it is the same as it is in our fictional future-world above: people and their level of determination to change government through the electoral process — which is on a basic level inviolate and sacred if handled in the correct way.

No matter how much money is thrown into a campaign, how muddled a message may get, people have the ability to find their way to the truth of things if they are determined enough. the Federal Election Commission publishes all donations a candidate receives. Corporate board members can be looked up. Individual’s associations can be researched. Who paid how much to whom is a question that in the age of Google, govtrack.us, and Wikipedia is not terribly difficult to answer. Public libraries provide Internet access, free magazines and newspapers. In other words, the methodology for dealing with corruption is as powerful as the citizenry’s desire to use it.

* * * *

While I support the idea that corporations are not people, and while I support the idea that money on the scale of the millions and millions of dollars we’re seeing should not be in politics, I support the amendment movement with caution. Whether the amendment succeeds or fails, there are outcomes that are unforeseen. This is because the problem is not a question of corporate personhood, campaign donations, or lobbying. The problem is that the majority of those who are currently in government are not governing well. The only sure way to deal with such a thing is through the willingness of the governed public to take control of their own destinies.

What we’re left with after all the dust clears are some basic tenets that have always been true about our country and are mentioned numerous times in the “Federalist Papers”. The first is that participation in government is a requirement of all voting age citizens. It is not a privilege, nor a right, but a responsibility of each governed citizen who is able to participate. The second is that when the citizenry do not participate, government is pulled from their hands by factions: religious, business, cultish, political. The nature of the faction doesn’t matter, what matters is that a minority (say 33%) becomes a majority as fewer and fewer people participate.

Simplified, I think my argument for supporting the move for a constitutional amendment could be written like this:

  1. Factions are anathema to a government that is meant to represent the entirety of the governed (Federalist Papers)
  2. Corporations are a faction that harms government (Assumption)
  3. The amendment is an attempt at limiting the powers of corporations (ibid.)
  4. Therefore, supporting the amendment helps limit the power of factions (1,3)
  5. Therefore, it is reasonable to support the amendment (4)

Reasonably speaking, then, should we support the amendment movement? Given that in either a passed or failed scenario, we are still relying on the citizenry to vote, participate, and ensure corporations don’t take over elections anymore than they have then yes, but only in understanding that it’s not the solution to all of the problems of government. In other words, support or not, the problems plaguing our government are not going to go away with the success or failure of this amendment. Since there’s no real way to tell if it will do more harm than good, it’s not unreasonable to support it, but it also may not lead the country to the solution that is expected.

One week plus with my tattoo

My tattoo has been healing nicely. The initial layer of inked skin has peeled off leaving the impression that I’ve had these symbols etched into my skin with a long piece of burning charcoal. I’m actually really digging it, and am glad I’ve had it done.

Some of you may know that I’ve been wanting a tattoo for some years now, the design and message of which was unknown to me, however. I expected after getting this done that I would be pleased with it. I didn’t expect, however, the effect it’s had on me.

These seemingly innocuous marks of ink have a weight — a solidity about them. I find myself checking my left wrist as though I were wearing a watch — it feels as though something tangible is attached to me. An echoing tendency to think twice about things that will affect my household has become ever-present, and I’ve realized that I’m a lot less likely to shirk my homestead chores. In short, my tattoo has become an indelible reminder of what it stands for. It is the symbol,  meaning, and literalness of that which it represents: family. Household. Skuldalið. All of that makes sense because that triptych of meaning is the ultimate purpose of runes.

Runes are an abstract picture of a people’s concept of an idea. Within each shape is found the sound, symbol, and definition of the concept for which they stand. Taken in of themselves, each rune is a kind of tiny poem. Wordless in its chanting, but as poignant as Haiku in its directness. When placed together, the effect is simply multiplied.

For me the result can be felt physically. The weight of my action, the talisman of the combined runes, and the meaning of the word they together represent will continue to live with me and inform my actions from here on out. All of which was my intent.

I didn’t, after all, get the tattoo to add to my collection or separate me from the pack. I didn’t get it to represent to the outside world some puffed up idea of my own identity. I got it as the talisman it’s become. The tattoo is a constant reminder of the joyful burden that is family, and because of that it is serving its purpose.

from “Progress Report for a Goodthinking UniSocAm”

I found this fragment buried in a government website a few weeks ago and wanted to share it. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to be public, as I haven’t seen it since. I don’t know the author or to whom it’s addressed, but it’s obviously fairly recent and seems to be part of a larger document or book. Please read it and spread it around. It’s important we don’t allow this kind of thinking to continue. In the meantime, I will see if I can find more.

– sd

There are five primary beliefs that must be imparted upon any citizenry in order to ensure the party’s long life. They are as follows:

  1. Participation in a republic is voluntary
  2. Responsibility for the republic rests solely on the shoulders of the elected
  3. Public is private
  4. Protection is control
  5. War is peace

During the early and middle stages of conversion to a single system of political and social thought, we must put all of our efforts into the five beliefs above. As the years go by and we find that the citizenry truly believes in the five points above, we can turn our efforts to other efforts (outlined in chapter 5 below).

At this point in time, we are very close to a complete adoption of the above beliefs by the majority of the voting public. The rest of this report will outline how we’ve accomplished what many people have said is impossible.

First is the task of getting the public to believe that participation in a republic is voluntary. We worked towards this goal first as it is the single weakness of our current government’s constitution. If enough people are convinced of a voluntary participation, then general human apathy will ensure that only a handful of the total population will turn out to vote. By limiting the numbers of voters, we can ensure a larger percentage of our own sympathizers, or sympathizers of issues that are not important to the running of a government. Recent history can give us many examples: religious freedom, abortion, homosexual marriage. None of those issues are truly important to the longevity of our current republic, but by ensuring that the only people participating are those who see them as issues, we have created a distracted and frustrated citizenry that is – in turn – less likely to vote in the next election.

How have we done this? The primary method is by not revealing to the public the weakness of the constitution. While our publicly funded education programs certainly outline the structure of the government, they do very little to educate students on the reasons for the structure or, indeed, the participation from the governed on which that structure depends. That added to a general human apathy, confusion around what the electoral college is, which election cycle is truly important (as an aside, we have been working very closely with the press on this one and have truly convinced citizens that the presidential election is more important than the congressional), and the convoluted unimportant issues mentioned above, we have come very close to bringing the voting pool down to a manageable and steady 30 percent of the populous.

Second on the list is to convince that the tasks of governing and oversight are the sole responsibilities of the elected and appointed officials. This is a key point. Imagine for a minute what might happen if each citizen took it upon himself to keep track of what government was doing. It would undermine our current progress and become very difficult to implement some of the future changes that are being planned. However, by the combination of human apathy mentioned above and a belief that governing is not a citizen’s responsibility, we can foster feelings of frustration and helplessness within the general public. These feelings lead to a continued trend of non-participation which leads to deeper feelings of alienation. When citizens feel alienated and disenfranchised, it makes it easier to suppress them with work, entertainment, the lottery, etc. (more on our work in those areas in chapter 2).

Third is that the public must believe that the behavior of government is private while their own private information is in fact public. The accomplishment of this step has taken many years and is only 60 percent complete at this point; however we anticipate great strides in this area with our current administration. The keys to this are jargon and volunteerism. Let me explain.

By wrapping governmental work within complicated language specific to certain areas of expertise such as law, science, economics, etc. the government can actually convince citizens that there’s nothing within the information for them. Additionally, our current administration’s pledge of openness will convince citizens to look at only what they are told to monitor – www.recovery.gov for instance – and keep them away from the inner workings that could actually tell a complete story. The press, of course, will request deeper access, but these few individuals are easy enough to control (more on this in chapter 3). With the citizenry volunteering to be left out of public processes, it’s very easy to convince them that those processes are actually private. From there, it’s even easier to convince people to volunteer personal information to the government: spending, travel, food preferences, closest friends’ names, political and religious views, etc. We can accomplish this in one of two ways.

The first is to simply say that we require such information to better understand their needs in order to properly govern. We could conceivably use the current US Census for such a purpose if necessary. The second method – which is also beneficial to our business interests and therefore preferred – is to allow the public to willingly send all kinds of information to their favorite companies. Once that’s gone on for a couple of years, we can institute oversight on the companies to ensure a protection of privacy. Of course, in doing so we gain access to unprecedented amounts of data.

In these ways we can ensure that the information our citizens think of as private becomes public, and at the same time generate a disinterest in government processes without passing any laws that could raise suspicious too early.

Fourth, we must convince the public that protection and control are the same activities with the same ends. Already there is evidence that people believe protection can only be gained by giving up control of their lives. This is a good first step. The next step is to demonstrate how without the government controlling their lives they would lose the protection that it offers. This demonstration has already begun, in fact, with the advent of the current financial crises and our work towards indicating blame.

People already believe that the sole reason for the banks’ collapse was lack of government oversight, and that it had nothing to with greed, mismanagement, and a healthy shove from the Fed. Now are nationalizing the problem banks, increasing oversight, and gaining control of those finances. The people – according to stock market movement – have reacted favorable. It’s apparent that society is beginning to equate control with protection.

Outside of the financial arena, we are using fear and paranoia in order to increase people’s desire for protection. This works especially well where many people are gathered together: airport, subway, train station. This, too, seems to be having a positive effect. We’re able to request identification at our leisure, subject anybody to an invasive and unwarranted search, as well as broadcast messages to everyone that encourage them to be suspicious of others’ behavior. All of this with little or no protest. We are very close to accomplishing our goals in this area much sooner than we expected.

The last important item to discuss is a concept popularized by George Orwell’s 1984. Surprisingly, the widespread popularity of this novel has not prepared people against many of the practices it attempts to vilify, among them the concept that war is peace.

We have been able to quite successfully convince citizens that only by violently protecting our interests in an area of the world can we assure a peaceful existence in our own country. Of course, this is not a new concept and precedent for such a philosophy can be found throughout documented history. Luckily, however, we have at our disposal governmental approvals of such behavior with the Monroe and Truman Doctrines. This ensures that even if a body of citizenry were to point out the fallacies of such a philosophy, we can simply respond that it is in the nature of our country and begin the process of proving them unpatriotic (chapter 6 for more on this).

Admittedly, we have had undreamed of success in this area over the past 20 years. There was some initial concern among some of our group based on how the constitution set forth the rules of declaring war. This was soon overcome, however, through a steady application of principals one through three and we eventually saw put in place a congress fitting our needs. That body put into law the War Powers Act in 1973 which gives the president the ability to preemptively invade another country. This relegated congress to the role of financiers, and while that could theoretically lead to problems, the successful disenfranchisement of citizens has ensure a steady stream of war-bound funds even to the point – if we may celebrate a bit – of bankrupting the country for generations to come. There is always a risk of relapse, however, so we must continue to devise a method of ensuring a steady stream of money (see chapter 4).

We hope you’ve found this overview of principles and application of same to be enlightening. Remember: through the steady, confident, daring, and unwavering application of the five principles outlined here, we will continue to march towards a future we can all be proud of.

Alternatives to Google

As I do this little experiment, I’m making some finds and reconfirmations of things that are viable replacements for google-based technology. Here’s my list so far:

  • Jabber is a great, free, open source IM protocol. Keep all of your contacts from GTalk, too. I’m using the chrome.pl server.
  • Free office software such as openoffice.org, AbiWord, etc. should serve all your writing needs.  I’m still looking for a remote solution with collaboration, which is a really important feature.
  • Ask.com has been working very well for me: mobile, images, video, maps, etc.
  • I realize I don’t need iGoogle with Firefox’s built-in RSS feeds. Netvibes is a fair alternative, though.
  • Still looking for a Feedburner replacement, but systematic use of RSS feeds using Firefox should cover it.
  • WordPress for blogging. I can host it on my own server, and it beats blogger hands-down.
  • Still looking for photo management/hosting, though both Windows and Apple have system-based solutions for management.
  • Web-based email solution is pending, as well.

That’s my list so far. Of course, I’m not paying much attention to webmaster tools such as AdSense or Analytics because I don’t use those in my daily life, anyhow. If you’re a webmaster or just interested in analytics, what do you use instead of Google?

I guess what I’m really doing is working to wrest back control of my life. It’s not an easy path, though. My wife and I are often working to simplify our daily interactions with the world, except that in order to do so one often has to do some up front work.

While google certainly simplified my life, I began to feel as though the trade-off — not actually being in control of my own stuff — was too expensive.

I will continue to share the results of my experiment here.