Good day everyone. When we left off yesterday, we were talking about vigilance and dedication regarding the meanings of words.
Let’s review: the main takeaway from the last post should be that words are the most basic currency of citizenship because they’re the means whereby we share ideas and communicate with one another. It’s for that reason that we have to respect their meanings and guard against attempts to subvert them. We can’t allow words to be stripped of their meanings and repurposed; if we allow our opponents to do that, to define the terms of the conversation, we’ve lost before it’s even started.
However, all that vigilance about words, language and clarity isn’t going to be much use if we don’t use those words to advance The Public Good (Chuck Heston voice — ed.). This brings us to today’s subject: civic engagement. One of the obligations of citizenship, it says here, is participation in the civic life of your community. (Suppose I should have a widget that flashes and makes “woop woop” noises when I get all sanctimonious or something.)
This project is going to stay resolutely non-partisan because I don’t want people to blow it off for ideological or political reasons. At least not until they’ve read the first two or three sentences. But it’s no secret that low voter turnout is a matter of concern, not only in Toronto, but at the provincial and federal levels as well. And it’s not just in Canada.
So, back to first principles. The right to participate in matters of public concern isn’t a given. Not everyone in the world enjoys that right. (Let’s just set aside, for a moment, the question of whether the mechanisms whereby we exercise that right are working as well as they should.) And if you don’t participate, you don’t get to complain when things happen that you don’t like. If you want good things to happen, if you don’t want debate to be consumed with stupidity or irrelevancies, you have to take part. It’s no guarantee, of course, but sitting at home with your thumb up your ass pretty much guarantees the opposite.
No easy way around it, my friends. You leave it to others, you have no right to complain, and as we’ve seen from the past couple of decades, you end up with dictatorship or the corporatist equivalent, whereby governments are systematically stripped of the ability to act in the public interest when it conflicts with private profit. The decline in public participation is part of what makes such arrangements easy to tart up and pass off as “free trade.”
As I often do, I’m going to cite my good friend Daren on this one.
They’re all crooks and liars anyway. Nothing you say or do will change anything anyway. What’s the use? Just keep your head down and blindly lash out every 4 years or so in the voting booth. Throw the bums out! Keep my taxes low. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Democracy in a nutshell.
Sorry, no sale. This is an abdication of the most basic responsibility of citizenship. When you take that attitude, you enable the worst elements and instincts in the body politic. The non-stop clusterfuck on display at City Hall over the last three years ought to be all the evidence you need. And really, it’s not much of a leap to draw the connections between that and the resources invested in keeping us lazy, cynical, and disengaged, because truth told, democracy is messy. I think it was someone much smarter than me who once described it as the worst form of government in the world, except for all the others. Couple that with the so-called Fair Elections Act, which has been described as a cynical and misleading effort at voter suppression, and the importance of civic engagement becomes even more evident.
Ultimately the only source of legitimacy is a mandate from the electorate, regardless of the dysfunctions of the FPTP system or the ease with which institutions of governance can be captured and subverted. Certainly one can raise questions about the source of that mandate or the mechanics of how it is generated — in fact, raising such questions is at the very heart of civic engagement.
It’s worth noting, for that reason, that that’s why the corporations and lobbyists and string pullers do not want engaged citizens — we just gum up the works and get in the way. Democracy, as someone once said, can be messy. But that is all the more reason to stress the obligations of citizenship, and the need for people to participate actively in the civic lives of their communities.
I’m dwelling on this at some length because it’s important to push back against the regrettable and, frankly, indefensible tendency for people to blow off their civic responsibilities with the arch suggestion that they “don’t want to get mixed up in politics.” As I’ve written previously,
One of the hallmarks of contemporary political discourse, or more accurately, the sewer into which the modern right has dragged it, is the characterization of undesirable things as “political,” and the corollary implication that anything tainted by the stench of “politics” is undesirable.
Sorry, nope. Governance is, at its essence, a process of determining public priorities and allocating public resources in accordance with those priorities. Inevitably, some of those priorities will be judged more important than others, and therefore assigned more resources. That process is a series of value judgements — judgements that are informed, one hopes, by a commitment to the public good (Chuck Heston voice again — ed.) and to arriving at solutions that achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Again, I’ll recycle my own argument (Sanctimonious Wanker warning):
In prioritizing things and deciding how much to spend, we are invariably making value judgments. We are negotiating with others and making trade-offs. In other words, we are Engaging in Politics. There’s nothing to be gained by deluding ourselves or trying to convince others that we are not.
In sum, then, politics is inherent in civic engagement. It’s not dirty and it’s not sordid and it’s not icky, despite the efforts invested in trying to make people think it is.
Dirty, icky and sordid. That’s not what politics is, and it’s not the tone that should characterize our public conversation. We can do better. We can demand better. We can establish a context wherein both we and our representatives and public servants are induced to do better. Tomorrow: inclusion, privilege, and above all, a call for a return to civility.
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