While we were putting together this package on democracy, a friend who was watching the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Samuel Alito called to register her opinion of the U.S. Senate, an increasingly reactive, rudderless body overrun by men and women who are as out of touch as they are interested in self-aggrandizement and self-preservation. "Who are these people?" she raged. "None of them seem to be representing you, me, or anyone else."
The answer, of course and unfortunately, is that "these people" do represent us, in some sense: We sent them to Washington, and only we have the power to replace them. And yet we celebrated when, in 2004, only 60 percent of eligible voters -- an unusually high number -- showed up at the polls. One reason for our malaise is that the ubiquitous pundits masquerading as journalists have convinced Americans that they are so bitterly divided, so red or blue in the face, that bothering to get involved is an exercise in futility. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: More people check out, elected officials cater to the media-saturated extremes, and those of us clawing to hold on to hope are reduced to shouting at the TV.
On the following pages we feature modern-day thinkers and activists who believe that we can take back our power by revisiting, and in some cases reimagining, the true spirit of democracy -- a loaded word that, like patriotism, has morphed from a high ideal into a $100-a-plate punchline. They tell us that by reengaging with our friends and perceived enemies we can have a government of, by, and for the people. -- The Editors
"But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no reason to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves, like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose, they could blow the party to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely, sooner or later, it must occur to them to do it? And yet -- " -- George Orwell, 1984
I have never understood the idea of speaking truth to power. The truth is that in almost all countries of the world, political and economic systems are designed to benefit the rich and powerful, at the expense of those with less money and power. This is how the world works, and I see no reason to think that the powerful don't already understand that. After all, they designed it; they maintain it.
They steal our money, sacrifice our children in their wars, send the poorest and most victimized among us off to jail for petty mistakes, and crush those of us who might present a real threat to the arrangement. They know we don't like it. They don't care. They don't need to care. They also control most avenues of dissent. It's a very simple, elegant design.
Meanwhile, we get angry and toddle off to tell the truth to the powerful. For centuries, we have traveled to their great palaces by the hundreds of thousands, to express our anger and despair. We shout and sing and stomp and whine like terrorized children, anxiously scolding our stern, all-powerful parents. We threaten. We plead. Sometimes we're beaten up, or sent to jail.
The rich and powerful have convinced us that we cannot, we must not communicate with the people we can see and hear and touch, right here, right now. They have convinced us that we need to travel to some government office to persuade elected officials and bureaucrats to change our world for us. The government and media drone on, endlessly, hypnotically, and convince us that if we just elect the right leaders, they will talk to our next-door neighbor for us. Government will help; government will heal; government will bring us together.
That is not going to happen, of course. The elites are too busy dividing us, setting us against each other, exacerbating every animosity, every misgiving, and every anxiety, however slight. They insinuate themselves into every new crack and crevice and offer convoluted, expensive legislation and bureaucracy. "There oughta be a law," says the old complaint. Well, there will be, to be sure -- but it will just make things worse.
We are all looking in the wrong place for reason and compassion and justice. It's not anywhere to be found in Washington, D.C. It's not in governments or statehouses. It's not there in that prestigious gathering of experts and big brains. It's wherever you are, right next door, down your street, and all around your neighborhood. It's in the cars that pass you on the roadways and in the shops where you buy your dog or cat food. It's not necessary to make the climb up to the penthouse. Our only hope, our only possibility, lies in the ordinary people who compose our world, who are the very stuff of our lives.
We don't need to rush out to tell the few that they are abusing the many. They already know that. We need to stand upright and walk out to tell the many that they are being slowly devoured by the few, for -- incredibly -- they do not know. We need to look to our next-door neighbors and to their next-door neighbors. We need to tell the truth to each other -- for we are the answer.
Most of America's some 300 million citizens live in my neighborhood, or in your neighborhood. Most Americans eat breakfast right next to you in the local cafŽ. Most Americans get their car fixed at the same garage as you and I do. Most Americans visit my library, my bookstore, my grocery store, my local park -- or yours.
Want to change the world? Tell the truth to the plumber. Begin with the lady who hands you the stamps at the post office. Talk with the checkout people at the grocery store. Chat with the waiter at your favorite cafe. Speak with the cops who sit down at the next table. Lean out of your window while you're stopped at the light and tell the truck driver some truth she is certain to recall and ponder.
Feel the need to march? Gather a bunch of folks and wander about your neighborhoods with signs and leaflets. When people walk by, stop and gab with them. When that guy with the huge, Hemi-powered Ram pulls alongside and tells you to "love it or leave it," ask him to stay and talk. Smile, offer your hand, make nice. He's one of us. He would make a wonderful ally. When a carload of high school jocks slows to offer some single-fingered communication, hand them some cold colas and tell them about the probability of a draft. They are our people, too. Convince yourself that this is so, and then convince them.
Get together with like-minded people and come up with simple, brief, meaningful ways to communicate with the folks all around you. Think about little things, easy things, immediate things. Think about what you can do together, and what you might accomplish alone. Think about your real day-to-day life, and how many opportunities there are to educate and enlighten, every day. We're all ordinary people, and we are our only hope: Forget about telling the government; forget about the hotshots; blab and babble and blunder and tell the truth.
Because as long as we believe we need the rich and powerful, exactly that long will we live life on our knees, begging for crumbs from their table. The depth of our apparent need is the measure of their height above us. The illusion of our impotence is the chimera of their monstrous strength. We shall be slaves as long as we're convinced that we have masters, and not one moment longer.
Time to wake up, time to grow up. We're not children. We do not need to ask permission to live like sane, reasonable, thoughtful, compassionate human beings. We do not need to beg or bow or kneel. We do not need to look to government or to experts or to the rich and famous. Whatever we need, we can get it ourselves. Whatever we want to stop, we can stop it ourselves. Whatever must be done, we can do it ourselves. We do not need them. We need each other.
Joe Carpenter lives in southern Oregon, travels extensively, and keeps his eyes wide open: email@example.com. Reprinted from Dissident Voice (Nov. 2, 2005), an Internet newsletter dedicated to "challenging the distortions and lies of the corporate press." Free at www.dissidentvoice.org.