Monday, February 28, 2011

Reform's Inside Game and Outside Game

The weariness has taken hold. Years of recession inevitably produces, pardon the phrase, malaise. We may not be falling farther down, but neither are we observing new growth. Though our tastes, as well as our ideological stances greatly differ, every tree that does not produce good fruit has been threatened to be chopped down and thrown into the fire. What constitutes "good" from "bad" is the very nature of our disagreements. Once upon a time, we complained heavily about high gas prices. Now we accept it with gritted teeth. We recognize now that our problems go well beyond the cost of crude oil. Nonetheless, the perceptible excitement once so prominent in earlier days is nowhere to be found. Disappointment laid upon disappointment builds upon itself prodigiously. Like the foolish man, we built our houses and mortgages upon sand.

I wonder if this is how we've felt before in previous times of relative famine. Had this been an earlier age, revolutions and upheaval might well be next. We stare, despite our distractions, across an ocean and see the end of the beginning, the unshackling of autocratic power. Rebellion is easy when us can be so clearly separated from them. In Libya or Egypt or Bahrain, we know our own allegiances as sure as they know theirs, or so we think. But without much understanding of the context, we might as well be watching a sporting event full of rules we can't quite understand.

Class and economic stratification, though they may have diminished over the years, has become complex and convoluted here in the Western world. Wealth has its own hierarchy and its own distinctions while, arguably, poverty has its as well. Years of good fortune have granted us the ability to have an upper and a lower middle class, as well as a concept of poverty "line". This is not always the case elsewhere. In the First World, if we still even retain a King or Queen, they have long since taken a ceremonial role and wield no real power. In other places, where sultans and emperors once ruled, dictators now wield authority in similar fashion. The first step towards greater empowerment may well be the easiest.

I'm not really surprised that here in the United States we've seen relatively modest protest and collective action of boots on the ground. Even with the recent nastiness of political discourse, we have at least civilized certain aspects of our disagreements. An earnest, passionate, left-wing movement in Wisconsin has captured the hearts of many, but thus far managed to spread no further than its own borders. The Tea Party, despite its self-aggrandizing bloviations, comprises a relative small slice of the electorate. We so badly want to emulate our past history, or at least replicate that which we see unfolding via a live broadcast stream.

But to be honest, in our own time, do protest and dissent really work this way anymore? And if it does not, is there any reason to criticize people for their perceived inaction? Here in Washington, DC, most people I know are overworked and praying they don't lose their jobs. They live day-after-day with the fear that grant money will dry up, contract assignments will be not be renewed, or budgets will be redrawn, eliminating the money to pay their salary. I may be describing one city's perspective in a large, complex, massive country, but I doubt this stops at the water's edge. Here, as you would expect from any capital city, people want to do good inside the system. I am careful to not denigrate their intentions, most of which are motivated by the desire to do good. And if I did, I would be personally insulting close friends and acquaintances. We can all go astray if circumstances provide us that ability, but that might not necessarily be everyone's fate.

I have always been torn on this issue. When and how should I best strike that crucial balance? Raising my fist in protest feels cleansing and cathartic, allowing me the ability to feel a part of something much larger than myself. Us versus the world, in any form, for any reason, inspires passion. Recent experience, however, has shown me the limitations of throwing rocks, even at glass houses. Working the inside game has been more fruitful. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. Some actions are rotten through and through, and some are nourishing. Even in my justified cynicism towards politics, I have known, and have even had the fortune to speak directly to politicians who have restored my faith. They've tended to be as frustrated, and likely more so, than me. And, to a person, they've all desired others to take up the same mantle. They ask for backup. They want new blood to carry the torch.

The dramatics of a street protest cannot be understated. However, having lived in DC now for over two years, I have seen one wave of protesters after another. After a time, they all begin to run together. The streets around Capitol Hill are regularly (and literally) papered with the remains of the latest rally. To know the latest to invade, one needs only look down at the pavement. There, one can read the all-too-familiar bold-faced type and agitating rhetoric of the most recent mass-produced handout. I wouldn't say I'm jaded, only that I know the limitations. What is for so many a popular tourist destination, both for pleasure and for protest culture, also happens to be my home. I'm not dismissive of the need to be politically aware, nor do I think protests are useless and counter-productive, but again, too often protests are short-term affairs with short-term goals, much like Get Out the Vote efforts. Once the election is over, the energy and drive once so prevalent seeps away.

In my humble opinion, if your cause is to ensure that reproductive rights for women are protected and not co-opted, then by all means, attend the ensuing rally. But better yet, take an active role in organizing it. Nothing shows the complexity, challenges, but also the benefits of such things more than being a leader. This can often be a humbling experience, knowing that grand ideas usually give way to how things work in practice, not in theory. Furthermore, once the speeches, chants, and parades end, the truly hard work begins. Those who find themselves inclined to leadership might well consider running for elective office. Our is a participatory democracy, with the root word being participate. Those who do not wish to adopt such a public role can support those who do, and also encourage others in their own inclinations and leading. Every candidate needs a staff and needs workers. The system is supposed to work this way, albeit in theory. But it's still worth a try. New ways can be built onto existing frameworks, without the need for complete dismantling.

Returning to my original point, despite recent hits to our power and worldwide image, we are still the trendsetters. Due to our perceived status, we prove or disprove theories and serve as the breeding ground for ideas. This is true whether we like it or not. Perception is reality. Today, we peer into television screens or computer monitors, watching Libya. They peer back at us, trying to make as much sense of us as we are trying make sense of them. What we see may well be a poor reflection. But it is not a useless one, so long as we remember to view it in its proper perspective. We can be reminded of our own past, as it was, and we can also be reminded that power and money are distributed unequally throughout the world. Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, but in time, we may be known, inasmuch as we are known.

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