Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Citizenship 101

"Class, today we are going to learn about people power."
MPBN’s lunch hour show Maine Calling recently aired a notable edition which posed the question, “What does it mean to be a good citizen?” The hour was part of the show’s on-going “What Does It Mean…?” series, and offered a fascinating discussion which I believe warrants further examination. Suffice to say, as a politically involved individual, the concept of “citizenship” or, more broadly, civic engagement, as it was defined on the show, is something I have given a considerable amount of thought to.

Much of the discussion focused on the degree to which Americans have become disengaged from politics and civic matters in recent years. Indeed, this is a trend I can personally attest to, having witnessed this apathy firsthand.

I spent most of this year working with my friend and Green Party colleague, Asher Platts in his campaign for the Maine Senate. (As readers are likely aware, we received 30 percent of the vote—a highly respectable finish in a two-way race against a popular Democratic incumbent.)

While most of the voters I spoke with were generally receptive to Asher’s platform, several told me flat out, “I don’t vote.” And it was not just young people I heard this from. I encountered quite a few middle-aged non-voters. Overall, Maine tends to have higher voter turnout compared with other states. (Maine and Minnesota boast the highest turnout rates in the nation according to the Christian Science Monitor.) Still, given the relative ease and minimal effort involved in the simple act of voting, it is frustrating that more Americans cannot be bothered to engage in this most basic civic activity.

Yet, if we consider the idea of “citizenship” to encompass broad, diverse forms of civic engagement—beyond the solitary, biannual act of voting—then we arrive at another problem.

 Just as a large percentage of Americans refuse to vote, those that do are likewise limited in their civic duties in that voting is the only major form of political participation they engage in. For these Americans, democracy essentially starts and ends in the voting booth. For all the liberals, for instance, who expressed frustration and disappointment during the last four years of Barack Obama’s first term, how many of them actually got involved—by contacting their representative, organizing a local sit-in or demonstration, taking part in an anti-war or Occupy Wall Street action, writing a letter to the editor, etc.—to influence the President’s actions?

This severely myopic view of citizen democracy all but ensures that nothing will ever fundamentally change in our country. There needs to be more than just voting. For all my qualms with the League of Young Voters’ unyielding Democratic partisanship, they hit the nail on the head with their “Obama Manifesto” on this year’s voter guide: “Disclaimer: Ballot is not effective when voter remains disengaged after election.”

“Cast your whole ballot,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience, “not a strip of paper merely, but your entire influence.”

So why is it so many Americans are, as Maine Calling host, Keith Shortall puts it, “tuned-out, turned off or too distracted” to extend their civic activities beyond voting? Certainly factors such as ignorance, apathy, isolation and a purported “lack of time” all play a role.

However, I suspect the main cause of this disengagement from civic life is the fact that modern day Americans are first and foremost not citizens, but consumers. The creation of the consumer culture (what Adorno and Horkheimer termed the “Culture Industry”) combined with the false needs and hedonistic ambitions fostered by corporate capitalism have essentially shifted the role of Americans to that of passive consumers. Case in point, we just witnessed a nearly week-long, post-Thanksgiving spending-spree from “Black Friday,” to “Cyber Monday” that encourages Americans to literally camp outside for discounts at big-box stores. (Camp on Wall Street to protest wealth inequality and corporate greed, however, and you are bound to be pepper-sprayed and arrested.)

Furthermore, our education system no longer impresses upon students the importance of civic engagement. For instance, Baby Boomers often talk about something called Civics when they were in high school. People my age are unlikely to be familiar with such a class. The closest thing to Civics I took at Kennebunk High School in the late ‘90s was U.S. Government. And the only thing I actually remember from that class, was watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

High schools and colleges do not teach students how to be citizens. They do, however, teach them to be loyal consumers. Consider some of the popular courses at your average university: Marketing, Public Relations, Advertising, Communications, Accounting, Graphic Design, Business Management. All of these disciplines are in the commercial arena. Critical thinking? Ethics? Literature? Philosophy? Environmental sustainability? These things will not make anyone rich, so colleges and parents do not push them and, as a result, students are not interested in them. No wonder we lead such poor civic lives.  

As Ralph Nader explained at a 2008 campaign stop at the University of Vermont (Oct. 5, 2008) if students do not have “citizen-skill courses,” they will be left with an education that does not prepare them for “empirical engagement in practicing democracy.”

“Why don’t we revolution the salutation?” he proposed. “Why don’t we say to people, ‘Hello. How’s your civic life?’ Try that with someone… Watch their expression. After a while maybe they will start saying, ‘Robust.’”

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