When Democracy Doesn’t Work, Pick a Different Democracy?

With Congress at a 13% approval rating, it’s probably fair to say that the great democratic experiment is suffering just a little. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court striking down the giving limits for campaign finance just about guarantees that government decisions are now in the hands of the highest bidder if they weren’t before. It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that politicians are likely to feel more obligated to “the people” with money than they are to those without. Some comedians (and realists) have even joked that Congressional representatives should be forced to wear logos belonging to their corporate sponsors like NASCAR drivers. Or, at least, a lot of politically-minded folks certainly feel that way.

I like thinking about these sorts of things – y’know, what’s wrong with the country and how we should fix it. But as just some average Joe in little ole Tennessee, I sometimes think, “Why even bother worrying with this? It’s not like any arguments or solutions I could think of would ever make it to Capitol Hill.” But it’s still fun to think about; I even enjoy reading a good Facebook argument here or there where an art major and a biology student engage in civil bitter discourse employing their knowledge of the Constitution they gained from that one college class they took where they spent all of a week talking about American politics. On the one hand, it’s silly and unproductive if not also depressing to watch (or be a part of). On the other hand, the fact that we live in a country where we’re afforded the freedoms to engage in this level of banter is something we all too-often take for granted. And I also think there’s something to be said for the way discourse can impact not so much the people we’re arguing with but, instead, ourselves. I’ll try to put that another way –

Though I’ve got a pretty ugly history to the contrary, I generally try not to engage in Facebook politics these days unless it’s to provide an interesting fact or to shed light on a theological concept, since my education is situated within that realm. But my goal isn’t to change anyone’s mind the way it once was. Instead, I’m more interested in changing my own mind. I want to be challenged and pushed, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that my goal is selfish in that way. Rather than pretending like I could change the world with my words, when that’s actually silly, I at least know I can change myself if I’m open to listen and hear out the perspectives of others. That’s education to me, and I want my education to be a lifelong experience, not something restricted to a few golden days at Wabash or Vanderbilt. In that sense, I love a good Facebook argument. And I suppose I’d like to think our whole world would be better off if we argued with that goal in mind – the goal to change ourselves instead of others, but seeing as how my wishful thinking contradicts my goal to change only myself, it’s probably best not to get caught up in that kind of meta reflection.

So, not too long ago, while complaining about the state of the union to family in what amounted to one of those arguments where none of us were actually going to change anything, I was surprised when my Dad offhandedly made a few remarks about how he’d make the country better. It was surprising because I can’t think of a single time where Dad made a staunchly political statement at all, so when he just sort of quipped about a different system of government entirely, I wasn’t expecting such a, well, brilliant concept: his basic idea was to randomly appoint everyday citizens who would be required to serve in legislatures much the way citizens are required to serve on jury duty.

Call it legislative duty. I’ve been turning this idea over in my head for a while now, and I think it’s actually more democratic than our current republic. It would need some tweaking to deter corruption, but with the right checks-and-balances in place, it might just work. That is, you’d have to make sure the selections happened randomly but that they would be representative of state demographics (though I think it would become somewhat obvious if they were not). You’d also have to have something in place to make sure that people would perform their assigned duties and were capable of fulfilling their obligations to the state (via something akin voir dire), though as a friend of mine pointed out, “if you relegated current congressional salaries towards compensation for this, people would actually want to do it.” And if it were something people wanted to do, it would increase the likelihood that it would be done well. It would also do away with political party alliances (or at least extreme ones) and increase the likelihood that people were voting their conscience in the best interests of their fellow citizens. You could keep, say, the Senate, and let the new group replace the House of Representatives. The executive branch could be responsible for selecting representatives with the judicial branch responsible for confirming them to either two or four-year terms.

I mean, it would never happen. But in a day and age where money decides policy, it was just nice to think about something different for a change. It was nice to be challenged by a totally different idea in the midst of what is usually just silly, harsh arguments where everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong.

Some Thoughts on Social Progress for MLK Day

Several years ago, one of my Facebook friends at the time posted a status on Martin Luther King Day that derided the holiday adding it was “just a day to get off work.” At the time, I didn’t take too kindly to that sort of thing, so I called her a bigot and deleted her right then and there.

The thing is, while I can’t say that I feel like I’ve lost a close friend or anything, I can say the years have tested whether or not I think she was a bad person at heart. I no longer think that. At the time, I probably demonized an otherwise good person who held a few misguided views. Aren’t most of us otherwise good people with a few misguided views?

But that’s one of the more curious things about racism today. We’re so trained in our culture to think that it only comes from people dawning pointy white hats, skinheads, or folks ready to burn crosses that we aren’t too eager to entertain the possibility that it could actually come from our friends, neighbors, family members, etc. – but those are precisely the people it comes from the most, and precisely because it comes from them, we’re not eager to call it “racism.” That is, either we only think it’s “racism” when someone is visibly hurt, so we dismiss more subtle forms of racist statements, or we’re quick to take any form of racism and demonize the whole person who said it, as was the case with my ex-Facebook friend. Neither of these approaches are doing our culture any good, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been guilty of both at times.

And yet, I think there’s a lot of us that want to believe that today’s America isn’t still racist. But the way we often show our progress is by comparing ourselves to our past. That seems a bit of an odd way to approach the issue, doesn’t it? It’s not been uncommon for me to hear people say things like, “Well, I’m not my forefathers. I didn’t own slaves. Don’t treat me like I did.” Okay, so, we’re better because we no longer hold slaves? Well, yes. We’re better because we don’t make people drink out of separate water fountains? Well, duh, but is that really going to be our litmus test for the kind of non-racists we aim to be?

The progress we must make cannot be measured by how far we’ve come but by where we can and should go from right here, right now, simply because that’s the right direction to move in. I think that’s at the heart of MLK’s dream: the dream wasn’t about achieving a goal but about a way of living out the kinds of morals that required constant reminders and awareness of who we are and who we want to be in the face of all forms of injustice. Yes, slavery is a thing of the past. Yes, the horrific Jim Crow laws are a thing of the past. We progressed to a better place. So, I suppose, we could say, “Look how better we are from our ancestors,” decide we’re happy with how far we’ve come, and say that’s enough. Or, we can keep pushing – recognizing that so long as someone – anyone – is marginalized, there’s still work left to be done. And the work, right now, that must still be done is combating these more subtle forms of racism that go unrecognized or ignored.

The unfortunate reality is, racism is alive and thriving in America, especially in the south. In fact, in the south, it can still be blatant. I recall a student at Vanderbilt talking about her own experience of racism in the south. She felt that when it happened in the south and was often blatant and hateful, she could dismiss the person as a bigot and move on with her life with relative ease, but when it happened in, say, Chicago, in a large law firm where someone made an off-hand, stereotypical remark, she didn’t know how to respond and found it shocking.

On some small level, I can relate to this as someone who lived in a rural town in North Africa for two years where I was one of maybe five light-skinned people living within a two-hour radius. Sometimes, I had rocks thrown at me by children. Sometimes, my friends were threatened or, in a few cases, assaulted because they were women or because they were different in some way from the majority. I lived occasionally confronting assumptions about me – that I worked for the CIA or that I was extremely wealthy or that I partied and was all kinds of sexually deviant or that I hated the Middle East. Sometimes, just a few assumptions about someone we don’t know at all, or even a few generalizations based around statistics that don’t include appropriate context, can be so incredibly damaging – and that is something that continues to happen worldwide.

Racism isn’t just despising someone different from you. It’s about fear and skepticism of what is different. It’s built-in assumptions that certain groups of people are “lazy.” Or, sometimes, assumptions that they’re the “good ones” or “almost white.” It’s built into political ideals about the “welfare state.” It’s built into beliefs about crime rates and incarcerations without regard for how slanted the justice system is. And yet, when a person has these assumptions and worldviews, that doesn’t also mean that he or she hates someone of a different color or ethnicity. And so we claim we aren’t racist, we aren’t bigots – because we don’t hate anybody or because we don’t wish any violence on anyone. Have you ever noticed whenever a celebrity gets in trouble for making a racist statement, the first thing they say is, “I’m not a racist.” I keep hoping some celebrity will respond by saying, “Well, you know, sometimes I can actually be racist, and I appreciate that you’ve kept me in check here, because what I said was wrong, and I should’ve known better.” We really need to get the word “racist” out of the clouds where it’s equated with “evil” because prejudice, to change the term slightly, is something we’ve all been a part of.

What we really need to combat racism is a healthy dose of self-awareness and mindfulness – a little honesty that, at times, we’re all skeptical of (if not also scared of) what we perceive as different from ourselves. To put that another way, we are, all, a little racist. That doesn’t mean we all hate or wish violence on others, but we do need to be careful, because the things we say can contribute to or promote violence and hate-speech inadvertently.

I think back to my ex-Facebook friend. She was a racist. I don’t have any question about that. But I have been at times in my life guilty of racism, too. She isn’t a bad person, and neither am I. And I probably didn’t get anywhere with her by calling her a bigot and deleting her. But when it comes to our closer friends and family, I do think we’re in a position to say, “Are you sure you really mean what you’re saying?” When we are in a position to question their words and how hurtful those words are, we should jump on the opportunity to be their keeper, to call them into question, and to remind them – because we love them – when they are being wrong-headed. I only hope my friends and family would do the same for me. If and when they do, that I believe is living out the dream MLK envisioned.

Speaking, Hearing, and a little humility in humanizing others

I reopened Facebook for the first time in over a year. I shut it down to work on a novel, but I won’t say I wasn’t excited to escape the vitriol that overwhelms our public forum in an incredibly divided America. I’d been sick of seeing it; I’d also been guilty of it, too.

Five minutes into scrolling through those blue-and-white pages, it was like being reminded, “Oh yeah – this is the same place I left behind,” though probably a bit more cluttered and starting to feel kind of gunky, like Myspace before Facebook came along. What happened to the old minimalist Facebook of yesteryear?

One of the first posts I saw was a Christian friend demanding drug testing before people can receive food stamps. I thought about posting, “Yeah! Jesus didn’t care for sinners! Take their food away!” But I knew my sarcasm was too harsh; it wouldn’t be heard, and it prompted the very vitriol I’d grown sick of. There’d be something hypocritical about posting that. Even the truth can be hypocritical depending on how it’s delivered.

I thought maybe instead I’d give a light nudge: “I wonder what a Christian response should be to this issue?” Challenge with a question; that’s a bit Socratic and so there’s a good to that, right? But something feels icky to me the way Socrates “stings like a gadfly; births like a midwife.” While that’s a powerful way to teach and an emotive way to learn, something about it is manipulative. It reminds me of a teacher I had once who I loved to death, but I always thought it strange that after tearing apart a student’s paper, she would hand that student a stuffed animal to cry into saying, “You’ll do better next time.” If it’s manipulative but it works, can it still be moral? Behind my “light nudge,” a push to ask, “What would Jesus do,” I was armed with more questions intended to guide and manipulate: Did ancient Rome – in the first century – fail to feed the hungry? Were Jesus and his disciples wrong to glean? Is drug addiction a disease or is it just an illegal action? If it were a disease, would addicts be victims? If addicts were victims, what does it mean to take their food away for a disease they have? Is it right to take away food from a hungry child whose mother is a victim of her addiction? All good points hiding behind those questions, but that didn’t seem like the right way to go.

A third option was to say nothing. Let’s all just be agreeable, can’t we? We can sit around and just sing kumbaya. We can agree to disagree, and then the whole world will get along, wars will end, and everything will be rainbows and unicorns – finally! Without being flippant, I do think there’s a decent argument to be made in recognizing that we won’t change our world over a Facebook conversation or an internet meme – or a blog. I wholeheartedly agree with that. And yet to simply be agreeable, to only surround ourselves with those of like minds – our own convenient filter bubbles – while seething underneath about the folks who live in bubbles so different from our own, and we aren’t being true to ourselves in that. Or to others.

So what do we do? If our goal is to convince others we’re right or to just agree to disagree, either of those seem to be the easy way out to me. In our divisive society, it can be tempting to stir the pot. In our increasingly relativistic society, it can be tempting to throw our hands up and say it doesn’t matter. Regardless of which route we take, whether we’re selling truth or saying there isn’t any, maybe the best approach is to let go – just a little – of whichever end of the spectrum we might find ourselves in. What happens if we start to ask, how do we maintain being true to our own perspective but also willing to let go of that perspective just enough to hear the mind of someone else? I don’t have an answer to that question. But maybe those are the kinds questions we should ask – the ones we don’t think we have an answer to already.

And so, to me, this was never really about whether the government should provide food stamps to drug abusers. It was more about a need to humanize the folks who might think that way. They’re the very same folks who I’ve known to be incredibly loving and, in some ways, far more charitable than me. Their opinion doesn’t rob them of that good – or make me better than them. I hope, not only throughout social media, but in all walks of life, I’d seek to humanize everybody a little, especially the folks I so staunchly disagree with. But I also hope others will learn to do the same. There’s a time and place to speak and be heard, though I suspect the latter is always the greater good. But there’s a place for the former, too, and I recognize it can be really difficult to determine how to walk that line. Like I said, I don’t know how we do that, how best to go about it; I just think trying is a message we’ve gotta promote – to seed a little bit of humility into ourselves. I’ll start with me first.

Disconnected.

About a month before I left for Morocco, I deactivated my Facebook account “temporarily.”  At the time, I didn’t know that I would be able to check my email or get online from time-to-time, and the last thing I wanted was to log into Facebook and see on my wall that five people had just bought vegetables in “Farmville” or if I clicked a link, I might find out who my secret online crush is or whatever.  I mean, really, I don’t care that your imaginary internet crop got flooded, and I don’t really understand why you do either.  And if you have a crush on me, please tell me but not through some obscure website ad.  So, not being able to police all the spam that shows up, I figured it was best to just close it down and that I would reactivate it one day.

Now that I do have access to regular internet, I’m not really sure what I want to do.  On the one hand, reactivating Facebook is obviously advantageous, primarily because it allows me to keep up with Peace Corps Volunteers who are on the other side of the country.  There are other ways to get a hold of them, yes, but there’s just something convenient and easy about letting Facebook be the “communication hub” of sorts, especially when it’s just what everyone uses.  On top of that, because Facebook has become this monopolized hub for communicating, there are some people who I’d like to keep in touch with, and I’m not sure we could stay in touch any other way.  For a while, I thought the people who really cared about me would make the effort to stay in touch and many have, but I’m slowly realizing such an expectation might not be fair; maybe the power of technology has brought us to a place where we just expect this magical thing we call the internet to be available for everyone, and we take it so for granted because we’re completely enveloped in it.

But that’s messed up, right?  We can’t write letters, send emails, afford phone calls, use skype, visit the people we love etc., largely because our generation has been socialized into needing and relying on this monster of a website that somehow figured out how to hand us on a silver platter everything we wanted in communicating.  Or rather, everything we thought we wanted.  And when we thought we didn’t want it (like changes to Facebook), a little time smoothed things over, and suddenly, we were okay with completely losing our privacy, as well.  Come to think of it, that’s the real genius of Facebook: that we were convinced to like something we didn’t actually like because of the seeming necessity of it.  I mean, you have to hand it to Mark Zuckerberg whether you like him or not; he figured out how to feed our selfish nature and give us something that would suck us into believing we were “connected” to one another in some special way, when in reality, the exact opposite has taken place because of the advent of this technology.  Some of us have forgotten what real connection is supposed to be for us, and we feed more on information and gossip than on reality, than on human interaction.  In an instant, we can now find out who is dating who, who believes what religiously and politically, where our friends were last night or where they are right now for that matter, who does and doesn’t have “morals,” who might be cheating on who, etc.  We’re overwhelmed with information that means absolutely nothing.  And in the end, while we might have all the details down about the people we know (or don’t know), there is no replacement for real, human contact or for what we really discover about people when we walk and talk with them face-to-face, heart-to-heart rather than behind a magical little screen that serves more as a mirror than a window into the world.

Maybe I’m picking too much on Facebook.  It’s not the only fascinating and complex social plague eating at our souls, but technology is now and has always been since the dawn of human existence something that we want, need, and shouldn’t have all wrapped up in one little device.  We forever have a love/hate relationship with it, and quite frankly, all my complaints about Facebook aside, I couldn’t be more thankful for these forms of communicating, especially when I think of my grandfather in Casablanca who relied entirely on the Army Air Post Office to communicate with my grandmother (then just his girlfriend) during World War II.  I mean, let’s be honest; who would’ve thought that some guy in a Peace Corps developing country would have regular internet access, but that kind of technology has become more precious than water.  Literally.  There are places here in Morocco where there is no access to public waterworks but because of the power of 3G, checking an email can happen with ease.

Still, even with the cyber cafe to my occasional rescue and as wonderful as this technology is, nothing replaces sitting in an empty room on blankets or small couches with my brothers Hamza and Omar as they lean into me to read whatever Arabic note card I’ve made desperately trying to accomplish the difficult task of perfecting the simplest form of communication, speech.  Nothing beats the laughter that echoes off the cold, concrete walls of this empty room in the middle of a desert town in Africa when someone cracks a simple joke about the fact that the word for “soup” and the word for “poop” are incredibly similar (“I love to drink poop” just has a silly ring to it, doesn’t it?).  Nothing can compare with seventeen year-old Omar insisting that I have a blanket to stay warm, because he worries I will catch cold, or when he wants to hear my American music so he can get up and dance to it over a good laugh.  No technology can make up for the communal cup of water that sits in the middle of the table, for the warm, mint tea you can’t escape as Moroccans insist on sharing, or even for the way we eat food here, the four, five, or six of us dipping our bread into one plate as we each whisper, “Bismillah,” in the name of God.

It’s the simple stuff, a smile, a laugh, a touch that I might have thought was awkward back home, a quiet peace to just sitting around listening to the dozen or so children playing jump rope or soccer in the street.  I don’t know whether I will reactivate Facebook or not.  Maybe so in January.  But I will never again in my life sacrifice these simple things that I have come to cherish about Morocco, about humanity, for a computer screen that’s telling me I’m now “connected” to the world.  No, real connection is something else, is something beautiful, is something worth thanking God.

Hamdullah.