Follow the Soapbox
 
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It is tempting to write another piece, given the urgency of the current political situation - it is tempting to compile the usual statistics and economic details into a mosaic - some larger picture that will give legitimacy to the financial arguments for things regarding the human right to Healthcare, or for that matter, the human right to shelter, or food, or water. However, those arguments have been well-established elsewhere - for example, by organizations like the Physicians for a National Health Program, or the variety of organizations - from UNICEF to the United Nations - on the non-scarcity of food and water.
 
It is evident, however, that such arguments do not rupture cynical attitudes or reverse feelings of powerlessness. Observation of the political culture of the United States, its effects on the psychological existences of the population, and the attitudes of the political elite might lead us somewhere in our inquiry. The question is "what is preventing changes that would better the society, given that the facts have already been laid out?"


Well, there are a number of ways to proceed in terms of researching such a question - sociological analysis and study of the fresh commentaries is the common way. I'd like to suggest that the following -- simple observation and contemplation might lead to equally valid conclusions. If you are an organizer, or an activist, and the character of your ideology is radical or progressive, I submit the following as evident truth:


Organizing requires a long term commitment - social change of any sort doesn't happen overnight, and the illusion of spontaneity is the result of many years of dedication - a few days of successful protest is usually the result of months of door-knocking, scurrying about, coffee-fueled epiphany-generating exchanges. The ideal is always in mind, or at least, the moral clarity and sense of urgency that is provided with such a need. It is a temptation for the exceedingly vain to intellectualize the matter - social change being the result of some mysterious hand, or a shift in our spirituality, or some massive psychological leap, or cries about social renaissance and the 'round-the-corner revolution. Perhaps it is much harder to admit work like this is the result of simple virtue: A focused-mind, an open and willing heart, talk, and a willingness to participate in the happenings of the society.


There are some common obstacles. In my experience, the hesitation that precedes change is perfectly expressed in the sentiment that an "outside observer" - our neighbor - may "sympathize" with what we are doing, they may "support" our goals and idealism, and even the specific aim - but "not enough" people will care, not enough support will be garnered, or some variation of candy-coated apathy. It is a frustrating irony that this sentiment, which demonstrates active concern for the political direction and the corruption of institutional behavior, prevents active involvement.


Another variation is in our definition of participation. A person who may be in agreement with certain matters in principle, may disagree as to what the proper method is to induce the changes we seek. It is custom in our culture to take pride in the elections - even if it is apparent, paradoxically, the futility of relying on this ritual. With a signature enthusiasm, we will be told to vote in the next election - that if we don't vote, we cannot complain about the deprived social conditions that we are subjected to. That more people should vote - and, of course, if we could only get an honest fellow in office, the problems would evaporate, simply, as a puddle evaporates after a storm. Come election time, that collective enthusiasm is demonstrated by many educated people - that we ought not to be cynical, that we ought to vote and the hysterical insistence that it does make a very large difference. There is additional frustration here, because, though the enthusiasm and authenticity of the sentiment is surely verifiable - so too is the recursion of disillusionment and inevitable feeling of uselessness and powerlessness that follows when a the love affair between a certain political figure and the public comes to an end. Take your pick with any of them, and some fraction of the population will feel this way. So that limited definition of participation results in self-limitation, and limitation of political possibilities. Participating means something more


Organizing means something different for everyone, of course - but there is the sense that a social change means something in our daily lives changes as well. It means that the merry-go-round, day-in-day-out endlessness transforms into something other than passive observations of headlines at the end of the day. It means that we are striving for some lost, or never discovered vitality that this life deserves - for oneself, and for everyone. It means that the culture of political participation doesn't limit itself to election cycles, or outside observations through academic lenses, or viewing the work of others simply to restore our faith in humanity. Political participation means that we play a part, ourselves, in creating the culture. A culture that is capable of educating itself, a culture that is capable of generating its own solutions and putting them into action. It means that it does not rely on viewing institutions through an illusory lens, static and unchanging. It means perceiving their flexibility, their fragility and moving to change their nature. 


The remaining obstacle is the simple fact that a cultural change is just that - a change. Explaining in explicit detail what such a cultural change would consist of is nearly impossible, given that there are few precedents in American history - this isn't a grandiose or self-celebratory statement - it is simply true that if the aim is to produce a new mode of thinking and acting in political culture, there is a very limited selection of historical examples to pull from. Surely, though, intellectuals have attempted to flesh out definitions of what is called "participatory democracy" and have given it an ideological genealogy: Athens, or models of direct democracy in South America (what's called the Landless Workers Movement) or, other systems of social democracy, but that isn't quite the aim, either. Discussions like this tend to be derailed by pedantic criticism.
 
Beyond that, it is impossible for one to assess the accuracy of critiques like this without direct exchanges with those who are putting effort into realizing these ideas. In addition, it may be intellectually entertaining to suggest that alternatives are possible - but it is a display of moral timidity that such notions - direct action and normalized participation - remain only in the realm of our ideas. But there are current examples to look to, experiments in changing political behavior are happening right now.

The Health is a Human Right Campaign in Maryland has been well underway for quite some time now. A little over a year since its inception, it has progressed toward the realization of the cultural changes that are necessary . Again, without any of the signature grandiosity of commentators - the simple actions of dedicated people have begun to have an effect on the state population. The Health is a Human Right Campaign doesn’t herd itself behind conventional political leadership, it informs its own communities directly of their power through things like speakouts, public forums, letters to local papers. The simple fact that language has meaning carries itself into community discussions with people - some who would consider themselves apolitical in nature may realize their political power, here. Discussions like this allow a platform for an honest assessment - free of political labels and banners - of the damage to personal life caused by the system in place.

The campaign organizes itself in a principled way. Those who organize in their communities are a part of them - an organizer from Southern Maryland is familiar with the psychological terrain of the area. Local events, county fairs, farmers’ markets - it is not someone who is alien to the community that speaks with them. It is literally a friend or neighbor who, like all of us - is seeking to understand what is happening here and everywhere, and is wondering if it is possible to do anything about it. Superficial rhetoric means nothing here. This is about building relationships with people who are directly around us.


Simply getting people together to discuss something has an effect. It shows us that there are people who are in our lives already - who are ready, like us, to see something new happen.


Perhaps it's best summarized, and may be oversimplified in the sentiment that we ought to "just do it." If we want to see something in the world, we ought to just do it. It may be easy to dismiss the sentiment as too idealistic, or even naive, but given the darkness of the current social reality, a bit of naivety, a bit of a spontaneous ethic such as this may be more than a nice thought - it is desperately needed.

 


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