20 February 2008

Never Promised You A Rosegarden

Walking out of the City Council Chamber last night, my laptop bag felt heavier than usual. It may have been the seven-pound laptop and the parts that go with it (power cord, mouse, etc.), but I think it was something different. I had just gotten out of a two-hour meeting and was required to have a finished story about it less than 12 hours later. Oh yeah, I also had to go home, somehow relax, fall asleep, and wake up early enough to get into the office to write said story. I don’t know about you, but I find it really difficult to come right home and go to sleep. I mean, I’d spent my entire day at work, right? The last thing on Earth I want to do is come home and close the chapter of the day on that note. On the other hand, if I don’t get sleep, what would be unpleasant to write Tuesday night would be unbearable Wednesday morning.
Shouldering my one-sided burden, I began walking through the near-empty open space connecting the outside doors to the Council Chamber. On the way out, I saw two young girls playing and coloring off in the corner. Obviously, they were waiting for someone still inside. I tried to cheer them up.
“Don’t worry, I think it’s almost over,” I lied, smiling wanly.
“Oh my gosh,” one of them, the little blonde, sputtered. “That is like the longest thing ever!”
I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or not, but I was feeling gregarious. I stopped at the door, and turned.
“Tell me about it – I have to go to every single one of those,” I said. “Sucky.”
Her eyes went wide. I kept walking out of the car. I began to think about how ugly the democratic process can be. For every single thing that actually gets voted on, there are all sorts of committees and boards that have to see it first, and pass it along. Before that, there’s usually a citizen or group that brings up an idea, and before even THAT, there is probably a lot of idle gossip and blustering thunder over dinner tables and neighborhood fences. Despite the “beauty” of this process, I’ve seen it through different eyes because I have to deal with it so much as part of my line of work. In the time of an election, I have to talk to every city and school board candidate that comes down the pike, which is frankly exhausting due to hearing the same lines over and over again.
The metaphor I came up with is that democracy is like a flower garden. People love to look at it, love to talk about how great it is, and will protect it when threatened. I’m never worried about people stepping up when the chips are down. But when it comes to tilling the soil, pulling the weeds or planting the seeds, few seem to want to get their hands dirty. How many people actually come out and vote for things during a non-election year? Using my city as an example, in a city of more than 58,000 (estimated) something like 5,000 actually came out to vote. The rest obviously had better things to do. I’m not going to turn this into a column about voting – but as someone with the dirt and grime of government under his fingernails, I find it tiring when people talk about how great the democratic system is when they don’t do anything to help it along.
If a public hearing in my city happens, it’s rare that more than five people show up. The beauty of our system of government is that people can become active within it. Yet few seem to. Why is that? Is it the human condition to react only when threatened?
I had an interesting conversation yesterday with the high school teacher who runs the student newspaper at my alma matter. We were talking about the Ken Burns series “The War,” and got to the topic of sacrifice. When it mattered, people from all walks of life made sacrifices for their country: the men went off to war, the women went into factories, and everyone contributed through scrap drives and cooperation with rationing and doing without. Now, we’re in a war, but what is being sacrificed? Not much – at least not by the average citizen, and I think the people in charge want to keep it that way. The more things are marginalized, the less interested people are in them. I think the only reason people are tolerating Iraq at the moment is because there isn’t a draft turning our college campuses into hotbeds of activism. No, sacrifice seems a bygone virtue. People are simply too comfortable today. Why go off and fight when we’ve got a soft existence here? This is one area where the enemies of democracy have us beat: they have nothing to lose, and we have everything. It’s quite a handicap to beat, and not something that can necessarily be solved entirely with high-tech bombs and pilotless airplanes.
As someone who has the dirt under his fingernails, as someone who tries to do his part to tend the garden, I really wish people would step up and do more instead of just watching the pretty flowers.

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