What we can do locally

Taking action in our local communities is where resistance of Trump’s agenda begins. It is among the people to whom we are closest that we are likely to find our first allies if we begin to look.

Like the majority of the country, I’ve been reading and watching news about President-elect Donald Trump with a mix of trepidation and horror. The blatant ineptitude of him and his staff to do any of the duties that have befallen him is laid bare for all to see. Trump’s actions demonstrate a complete lack of respect for the press, for free speech, and of course for women and minorities. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read the Constitution. Numbered among his supporters are neo-Nazis, white-power groups, angry neocons, and of course the economically disenfranchised and economically over-franchised who voted for him.

However, I have also seen lists from both Bernie Sanders and Robert Reich of actions we can take. I’m emboldened and comforted by these. I’ve used those lists as inspiration and foundation for the list below, focusing on actions we can take in our local communities.

  1. Get your town, city, or county officials to state their points of view about Trump’s election. Do they support him and his policies? Why or why not? Find out where they stand. If you can, urge them to declare or resolve that your community will be a safe haven for free speech and minorities.
  2. Get the necessary permits or permission and establish a 7-days a week presence on a corner with signs, megaphones, pamphlets. Speak your mind and be heard, even about local issues. Let the community know there are people who are aware and concerned.
  3. Write letters to the Editor of your local paper(s).
  4. Talk to your local business community or chamber of commerce. Are they willing to denounce Trump’s business practices and be public about it? Are they willing to stop carrying Trump merchandise?
  5. Look at your community’s voting data (your secretary of state will have this information). How many voted Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or wrote in someone else? If there are even 20 people who didn’t vote Trump, write a letter to your local newspaper asking them to reach out to you — even anonymously.
  6. Get organized through voter lists (they are usually at the Town Clerk’s office: you won’t see how people vote, but you will likely see party affiliations).
  7. Get to know your community or your neighbors. What are people worried about? How can those worries be addressed by your city council or select board?  Now is not the time for isolationism.
  8. We know that Trump is likely to target minorities, education, and women’s health care. Get connected with these in your community and understand the relevant concerns. Ask what you can do to help.
  9. Join a board or run for office if you can.
  10. Keep track of Trump’s policy decisions and ideas for the future. Work with local and state politicians to understand how they will impact your community. Publicize that information often (see number 2).

It’s easy to get lost in the national quagmire and feel overwhelmed. It’s easy to fall into the rut of swinging the pendulum the other way. If we focus locally and look to our families, friends, neighborhoods, and communities instead, we can become hubs of protection and action. We can make small differences where we live. If each of us makes a small difference, big differences begin to take shape.

Gun control and ethical consciousness

When we talk about gun control and assault weapon bans, should we talk about controlling the weapons themselves, or should we talk about the ethical weight of having access to such weaponry and the implications of that weight? The national dialog certainly has been focused on the former, but I believe that the latter is far more important a thing to address.

Our right to bear arms has become a label we use for what should be called our desire to bear arms, and it is this desire that we need to discuss. It is this desire and the ethical consequences of it that have to be brought forward into the national dialog. It cannot be denied that the United States is deep in the throes of a passionate, sordid love affair with firepower. We are drenched in the post-coitus scent of black powder, molten lead, hot brass. Our language in the debate is not logical nor reasonable but passionate and fiery: the rhetoric of lovers afraid of losing each other, afraid of admitting what they have. Other countries can see the lust for weapons in our dialog, our media, our attitudes.

Before I go any further, I should say that I am not promoting a ban on anything. In fact, because my position is that we are not having the proper discussion about weapons, I am against the discussion on banning anything. I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem. We tried to ban alcohol: it didn’t work. We’re trying to ban drugs: that’s not working. My parents tried to tell me to not have sex with anyone in the house when I was a teenager: that certainly didn’t work. None of these things work because none of them address the issue at hand (hedonism, addiction, hormones). And the issue at hand in the gun debate should be around our responsibilities as they relate to owning weapons, the ethics implied by the second amendment.

For instance, I have a right to stand in a crowded plaza and say “Bomb!” because the first amendment grants me the right to free speech. However, it would be right for someone to hold me responsible for the damage that declaration might cause because my right to free speech also leaves me responsible for what I say and the results of those utterances. The same should hold true regarding the second amendment.

I have a right to purchase, own, and fire a weapon. However, I also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that my weapon is not used to harm others. I think most folks who are pro-gun would agree with this, and I’m glad of that. Responsible gun ownership is one of the hallmarks and cornerstones of the second amendment. Fine. Let’s not argue that here.

Looking back at the first amendment again. Imagine that I know or can deduce that someone is about to shout “Bomb” in a crowded plaza and cause an unmitigated panic in which surely a number of people will be trampled to death. Imagine I have the power to keep that from happening by simply taking away that person’s power of speech. Does my foreknowledge of that person’s action give me an ethical responsibility to stop him? Are that person’s first amendment rights being violated if I do so? These are the kinds of questions that are not easy but have to be asked of ourselves in terms of our “rights” as granted by the United States Constitution.

So how does this thought experiment apply to the second amendment? Surely we can recognize that the right to bear arms comes also with a responsibility to ensure that those arms are born in an ethical and safe manner. A manner in which violence does not come to those who are innocent. If you exercise your right to carry a weapon, then you tacitly agree to the ethical responsibility that comes with that weapon. It must be so, because otherwise we are giving ourselves over to the idea that the right to power also gives us the right to hold power over and disregard others, and surely that’s not what is meant by the second amendment.

While we debate about what is or is not an assault rifle or even if that’s a term that makes any legal sense; while we try to find “compromise” about how many bullets in a magazine is too many or few; while we spin our wheels trying to ban or not ban a variety of weapons, we are missing the point altogether. Banning a weapon does not free us of the shared ethical responsibility of how weapons are used any more than controlling the time manner and place of speech frees us from the responsibility we must bear if our speech causes harm. We are not able to see this clearly, however.

We are in love with firepower. Love has blinded us to the responsibility inherent in having access to that firepower. Blinded us so deeply and assuredly that the deaths of hundreds of people in either accidental or deliberate acts of gun violence has become nothing more to us than statistics we can compartmentalize for the sake of a pro or con stake in the national argument. We are so in love with firepower that the death of a child means less to us than the debate about how many bullets is too many or whether “assault rifle” is a real term.

Because as a nation we are granted the right to bear arms by the second amendment, we as a nation have also tacitly agreed to shoulder the ethical burden of that amendment. We know this because we live in a civilized society, not an anarchistic state. By exercising this right, we acknowledge our adherence to the laws and morality around that right. Just as in speech, driving a car, growing our own food, owning the rights to land, etc.

The debate about our love of firepower and our ethical responsibilities must begin and the argument over which component of what weapon will be regulated must stop. Only by acknowledging our responsibility for the safety of ourselves and each other can we begin to find a way to eliminate the innocent deaths caused by this love affair we have with weapons.

 

 

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?

Factionalization is killing our country

The United States Congress has betrayed its purpose: the representation of the ideals of its constituents is no longer a primary motive. Rather, the concerns of corporate entities, personal gain, and political favor have corrupted the work our government does and the general population is left to ponder the outcome and live in the aftermath.

This has not happened just this year, nor in the last decade, nor indeed over the last 50 years. It has been a slow and inevitable process brought on by the one weakness in the armor of the United States Constitution: it’s ability to become beholden to factional influence. It is a process described in the Federalist Papers, as well as in George Washington’s farewell address to congress. It is the reason why Washington was against the idea of political parties, and the primary reason why Thomas Jefferson believed that every citizen should be educated: to protect the country from factionization. Their warnings have not been heeded, and our country is failing. It is not the fault of our elected officials, however.

We, the people, have allowed the factions to elect those unscrupulous men and women who pervert their calling in the halls of congress. We have allowed it to happen by not participating in our own government. Congressional elections since the 1960’s have had participation in the 20 – 30 percent range. An average turnout of around 35% has been seen during those elections over the last 40 or so years. After accounting for the non-voting population, that is approximately 17% of our citizenry who are determining who remains a representative.

By deciding to not participate in congressional elections, we have handed our country to the entities that most desired it. Those entities and their bank accounts are now controlling how laws are written and which ones pass.

The cynical amongst you will come forth with some kind of “well, it would have happened anyway” or “my vote doesn’t count” quote. To you I say shut up. The reason your vote is slowly counting less and the reason this is happening is because of that very thought process. Our government only works when everybody participates in its operation. It’s not just a right, but a civic duty to follow, analyze, decide, and act on the decisions your representatives make — in your towns, states, and otherwise.

Whether you voted or not, the people from your district will work to determine your quality of life.

This is not a country for cynical people, unfortunately — a fact I have had to come to terms with myself. Cynics will look at a system and see how it has failed them, see the utter futility of trying to correct what seems so obviously wrong. Our country is designed, however, to be fixable. To provide us the view into what is wrong and the means by which we can repair it. All we need do is act.

The massive turn-out in the 2008 elections and its historic result — while not my personal choice — is an example of the voters trying to fix a system. That election was easy, though.  Can you do it in 2010 when it matters more, but will be far less glamorous? Will you turn out and discard those representatives who have failed you, your families, your neighbors and your towns without the television telling you to do so? Will you become the moral compass for those who have none even if your favorite news station disagrees with your ultimate decision?

We are not lost yet. The factions are winning, yes, but they are no longer a concern when we override them with sheer participation.  We can still reclaim the US Congress and give it back to those who would do a better job of representing the people of this country over corporations. It is, after all, our congress to control. The people who sit in those aisles are merely stewards of our rights. And as stewards, they are beholden to our disgust, our wrath, our choices.

Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduces extension of Patriot Act sunset

GovTrack: S. 1692: Text of Legislation, Introduced in Senate.

With the bill linked above, Patrick Leahy is attempting to move the end date of the USA Patriot Act from December 31st 2009 to December 31 2013. On October 8th the bill was read twice and submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Leahy is chair.

Specifically what S. 1692 will do is amend the USA Patriot Improvement and Re-authorization Act of 2005 by changing ‘2009’ to ‘2013’ in various sections of the law which reference the bill’s “sunset”, a fail-safe date placed into the law in order to make it more palatable to its detractors. The next step for Leahy’s bill is for it to leave the Judiciary Committee and enter debate on the floor of the senate.

If Leahy’s amendment goes through, the USA Patriot act and all that it allows will stay with this country for another four years. This law needs to run its course and end this December.

For eight years now we’ve lived in a shadow of fear brought on by first the destruction of the World Trade Center, the fall-out caused by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and — not the least — the fear-mongering actions of our representatives in congress, of which the Patriot Act is one.

The structure of the United States is such that we can either entertain personal and civil liberties, or we can give all of that up for the illusion of perfect safety. We can’t have both. The Patriot Act represents the latter. It’s time for the former. There is still time for us to contact our senators and representatives and let them know that we’re done with the Patriot Act and the fear it represents.