Upright Citizens Brigade
My muscles are so sore as I stumble out of bed these days. It’s confounding, because I know I use my muscles all day long as I run around, right up until the moment I collapse in the evening. But I’m getting older and my body does not act the way it did five years ago. The muscles that power my house of cards need to be exerted in a far more intentional way if I don’t want them to betray me too soon.
There are, of course, many kinds of muscles. And they all need to be exercised.
I always loved Mr. Money Mustache’s “frugality muscle” rant. His idea is that once you prove to yourself that you can do things a more frugal way, you get bolder, and the muscle gets stronger. Before you know it you’re raising a family on $18 a year in a beautiful house. OK, not quite. Kind of breaks down for me at that point, but the basic philosophy is sound.
Today I am thinking about a different muscle. The one Annie Leonard of the Story of Stuff, has talked so much about: the citizen muscle.
I have been giving this muscle a minor workout.
Can we not agree that the more informed and engaged the citizens of this country are, the better off we all will be? If every person in this country was aware of how laws and regulations affect them, their family and the country as a whole, if they formed an opinion on that information and then made that opinion heard every day… is that not a better world?
This is pie in the sky idealism. Destitute people who have suffered an indifferent upbringing, awful schools, depressed local economies and a drug addiction epidemic, are just not going to find a way to be informed, productive citizens. It is, tragically, nearly impossible.
But those who are so blessed as to be able to read a newspaper and follow important issues? Those people need to check in. All of them.
If the government is going to roll back internet privacy protections, at least let that be because the people are demanding it. I don’t agree, but if that is what the country wants, well, I lose that argument. But when the decision is made in a vacuum, totally divorced from the will of the people, it’s pretty effed up.
Knowledge is power.
I respect people who are informed and engaged, even if I disagree with their views. I didn’t agree with most of the Tea Party platform, but I never once said, “how dare these people protest and make themselves heard?” No one who believes in progress, fairness and democracy ever could.
When I hear people complain about protesters, I am just aghast. So many of our problems could be solved if more people paid attention and weighed in. We need more of that, not less. If there is one thing that these movements show, it’s that when people make themselves heard, there is a ripple. Isn’t that wonderful? Doesn’t that restore your faith in government? We all need to flex our citizen muscles.
But not just on our hot button issues.
If citizens weighed in 1000 percent more on every issue, partisan political lines would fade away like magic.
Our political system distills the whole country into two nonsensical boxes, even though most people have a wide range of opinions that span both party’s platforms, and beyond.
This gross over-simplification makes things easy for politicians. They would prefer you’re only aware of one or two issues, so they can easily push your buttons.
Don’t let them get away with this lazy manipulation. We should be doing the goddamned manipulating, not those bribe-taking buffoons!
When you look at the positions the government has taken on so many issues — internet privacy, climate change, environmental regulations, healthcare, research funding, protections of national parks and endangered species — the majority of people disagree with all of them, regardless of party.
For the love of God, people were marching for science this week. Not a controversial idea! Much to the consternation of the majority of Americans, the government seems intent on defunding medical research, silencing government scientists, and refusing to acknowledge the wide scientific consensus on climate change. We are not even allowed to study the public health implications of gun ownership. Not allowed to gather information on how gun ownership could be made safer, in order to save lives.
Our duties do not end at the ballot box.
Voting is great, but unfortunately, politicians think that your vote absolves them of all the gross things they do. The president says that because people voted for him, he does not owe the country information on his conflicts of interest. Is that what a vote for him meant? Not if you look at the opinion polls on the matter.
So the conversation cannot begin and end at the voting booth. Citizens need to make their opinions clear to those they did not vote for, and, perhaps even more so, to those they did.
If you vote strictly for democrats because of environmental concerns, you still need to call your guy when he does the bidding of Verizon, if you don’t like that. If you vote strictly Republican because you’re pro-life, you still need to call your guy when he’s chopping up the Endangered Species act, if you care about that.
I am actively following many national advocacy groups whose missions I support, as well as local citizen groups. I am looking at every petition, signing those I agree with, contacting my elected officials constantly, and marching when I want to get loud.
Locals were sounding the alarm this week.
Zoning restrictions were in danger of being lifted so that tall buildings could be built on the periphery of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, casting an unwelcome shadow on our beloved urban sanctuary. I, like several thousand others, wrote my City Council member to protest. I received a quick reply that the idea was squashed for now. I have no doubt the issue will re-emerge and I will be just as committed when it does.
Being engaged means staying engaged. I wouldn’t have known about this issue if I wasn’t paying attention. I wouldn’t have acted if I didn’t know. If 4000 people like me didn’t do the same, the restrictions would have been quietly lifted. Simple as that. 4000 people is a small number, but do you know how many people vote in a City Council primary? Yeah, not a lot. Small victory, big implications.
Please don’t look at activism as a negative, whether you support the cause or not.
Anytime a large group of citizens manage to influence their government, it is a net positive… a giant cortisone shot for the American experiment. As Annie Leonard says, we flex our “consumer muscles” daily. Those decisions can make a difference. Sometimes. Sort of. But we need to be citizens before consumers. Those are the truly important muscles.
So don’t denigrate engaged citizens. Disagree with them and complain that the people who agree with you are not taking to the streets and being heard. Informed, vocal, engaged citizens make the country stronger. One day they may just be fighting for something you agree with. One day maybe the infrastructure atrocity is in your backyard. When that happens, you’ll be glad to have them on your side.
If every citizen’s voice was heard, both on the right and the left, we would all be better for it.
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