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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

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And that's worth something, isn't it?

Yeah, it is! It's better to do something than nothing.

I'm worried about you. Are you okay?

Thanks for the concern. In this case I'm mainly disappointed at the way CCR framed their request; we're not doing anyone favors by encouraging the belief that Obama will do anything but laugh off the suggestion that he should actually, y'know, obey U.S. law in this instance.

If you forward on an email that says, "Call your Senator and ask him to vote for bill X!", aren't you inadvertently reinforcing the belief that Senators actually listen to their constituents? And what if you know that your Senator doesn't listen to his constituents?

Any time you encourage people to engage in the political process, you're sending a message, often unintended, about how likely the political process is to respond. Professional activist groups have a powerful incentive to keep people engaged, so of course they're going to mislead people about the likelihood that their engagement is going to make a difference. Not that the good folks at CCR sit around the office chuckling about how they've put another one over on those suckers on their mailing list. Instead, they probably offer themselves rationalizations, like "It's better to do something than nothing," or, "Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed people, blah, blah, blah."

In the long term, this sort of thing is corrosive. People stop responding to the appeals, because they no longer trust the people sending them. What once looked like dogged determination now looks like delusion. Or at least that's how I view most of the email I get these days from United for Peace and Justice.

If you forward on an email that says, "Call your Senator and ask him to vote for bill X!", aren't you inadvertently reinforcing the belief that Senators actually listen to their constituents?

That's pretty much exactly my point. CCR could have sent out this same request but without asking us to believe in the Easter Bunny. They're usually better about that, and I've talked to enough people there who have few illusions about Obama to know they know better, so I suspect this one was composed by someone who's still harboring that tiny sliver of hope. Or it may just be that they're thinking they've got to make it clear that they tried all avenues of engagement before going into full-on adversarial mode (since their membership would bridle otherwise).

All that said, I do think it's important to register this kind of dissent, even when—as in this case—there's not a chance in hell it'll affect policy.

What sort of dissent does work? As a comfortable middle class type, I of course don't want to hear that I would have to inconvenience myself by going to jail, and that my fervant emails to politicians and newspapers do absolutely no good, so let me down gently.

Donald Johnson:
What you do should depend on who you are and where you are. If you're a teacher or have kids in school, get involved with counter-recruitment. If you live in south Florida, check out Take Back the Land and assist them in their efforts to resettle homeless families in foreclosed homes. Donate to Democracy Now! Volunteer at your local community radio station. Look into Community Supported Agriculture. What all of these things have in common is that they're not about petitioning someone important to "do the right thing." When you've exhausted all of these direct-action options, let's talk again.

When I say, It's better to do something than nothing, it's more of a personal thing. What's the alternative? Wallow in despair?

I do a bit of donating and some volunteering (though not enough, which is going to change).

Community Supported Agriculture looks interesting--I just googled it. Thanks for the tip.

I also do a fair amount of that emailing to politicians and newspapers. I've never had a good feeling for whether it was a complete waste of time or (combined with other letters) it might have some effect. My vague sense is that pressuring newspapers to do a (slightly) better job on some issues might work, especially in the internet age where their mistakes and biases are openly discussed nationwide.

What's the alternative? Wallow in despair?

Well, I think I listed some alternatives, right above your question.

My vague sense is that pressuring newspapers to do a (slightly) better job on some issues might work, especially in the internet age where their mistakes and biases are openly discussed nationwide.

The media's a good example, because thinking about how to fix the system is a bit simpler than thinking about how to fix our broken political system, and the choices you have are similar. For example, you could:

1) Call or write media outlets to complain about bad coverage
2) Start a blog where you call attention to bad coverage
3) Work to build alternative media, either nationally (like Democracy Now) or locally (like community radio)

I'd say #1 is mostly a waste of time, #2 is better, and #3 is the best (but those are just my preferences). What sets 2 and 3 apart from 1 (and the reason I prefer them) is that they're about talking to people like ourselves, instead of directing all our energy "upward" to our "superiors."

In the same way, our choices for reforming our political system: 1) petition those in power to do the right thing 2) talk to other citizens about how the system is broken 3) build alternative structures (local democracy or self-help and self-organization).

But so many people think political activism consists entirely of #1 (directing complaints at those in power), or do #2 in a half-hearted way, and never even consider #3. So then, when you point out that #1 is probably a waste of time, they're thrown into despair, or they assume you're saying "we shouldn't do anything." To the contrary, the problem is that there are too many good options for things to do (could any one person do even half of the things in my short list above?).

That's interesting, SteveB. On purely political stuff I do a lot of 1 and more of 2 (well, not blogging, but commenting on lots of other people's blogs) and thinking that I should be focusing on 1 more, as it is more "serious". You've sorta shaken me up a bit.

I also do 3, come to think of it, though only in the sense of donating and subscribing.

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