Standing Vigil in Watts and Syria

When the Watts riots broke out in 1965, the woman who was to become my mother-in-law 27 years later gathered together a group of Quaker women to stand vigil outside the barricades that the LAPD had erected around the neighborhood.  For days they stood in a line peacefully outside the barricades, taking turns in shifts, witnessing what was occurring and trying, in the process, to minimize the violence.  If they had not been there, surely even more blood would have been spilled.

Syria reminds me of this daily.  We have all been witnessing the atrocities, but at a comfortable distance while the Syrian people have been routinely brutalized, gassed, and murdered. This is not a civil war, but a barbaric attack by a leader against his own people. As Yassin al-Haj Saleh writes in today’s New York Times, “Here in Syria, there is a regime that has been killing its subjects with impunity for the last 30 months.”

In his speech tonight the President said, “We seek to ensure that the worst weapons will not be used.”  Well, I don’t see any real difference in dying by gunshot, fire, or poison gas.  Killing is killing. That Obama is moved to do something only when the “red line” of the use of sarin has been amply demonstrated is terribly disappointing.  Isn’t a red line crossed when an elementary school is bombed with napalm? When rape becomes a weapon of war?  What’s the point of “reprimanding” a tyrant for using one kind of death machine rather than another? I’m all for the Russian plan to get Syria to divest itself of its chemical weapons, but what about all the other weapons? And what of the total illegitimacy of this regime?

I am ashamed that we in the rest of the world have stood by, paralyzed by cowardice or trepidation, for all this time while the government of Bashar al-Assad has brutalized and killed thousands every month. But I also understand and share the worry over going to yet another war.

So might there be a nonviolent alternative — something akin to the line of Quaker women standing watch?  That might mean sending in UN “peacekeepers,” though that is still very militaristic and might not be the only viable option.  What if we civilians, pouring in from the civil societies of the world, took up watch inside of Syria, just as so many journalists have tried to do?  We need to stand closer.

What’s to keep a dictator from killing those standing watch?  Very little.  But is there any other decent alternative? Can we claim to be a really human race when we fail to be humane, when we stand by helplessly?

Breaking News: I Am Obama’s Mama…

according to a commentator on the very reputable (sic) fox news site:

just wanted to let some of you know about something i discovered and it has made me go hmmm i went in Ancestry.com and typed in Ann Dunham and there was some info came up with photos.there was the usual photos of Ms.Dunham where she is with her hand to her face holding sunglasses and then there was one photo that had a woman with short dark hair that was really nice looking and stated her name was Stanly ann Dunham.It was from Obamas family tree.This photo stuck in my mind and was i surprised when the other day i was surfing the web and i came across the photo of Ms Dunham with the short dark hair,but her name was not Dunham but Noelle Mcafee and she was a professor with a university.this really blew me away.i tried to research her but there is not much info on her other than her writings.is this ANN DUNHAM or did some of Obamas people put this photo out there to confuse us?i don’ t know.maybe someone can find the answers to these questions.i could not find very much info.hope you all will do better than me.

Funniest thing I’ve seen all day….

Full disclosure, I was born in Libya — on Wheeler AFB and…

BTW, Obama and I are the same age.

Town Hall Democracy?

Here’ s a recipe for debate rather than deliberation.  Throw a town hall meeting and put a politician in the middle of the room.  In that setting, the people generally come to blame and beseech.  They don’t come to do the political work of deliberation, which is to ask themselves, on whatever the issue at hand is, what are we going to do about this?

Was it Bill Clinton who took the town hall meeting and put it to the political use of meeting and greeting the public?  The language of “town hall” invokes the ideal of face-to-face political decision making.  But when there’s a politician in the room, all the energy goes to “what are you going to do about this?” With his political gifts, Bill Clinton could turn this into an opportunity to charm the room into seeing things his way. But that’s not what a town hall meeting is supposed to do.

In a real town hall meeting, the power is in the room, not on the stage.  I attended a volatile town hall meeting in Andover, Massachusetts, when I lived there. The issue had to do with development and there were a lot of strong feelings in the room. But the energy was directed toward each other, and the live question was, what are we going to do?  How will we decide?  And are we going to be able to live with each other peaceably after we’re done?  Someone stood up and reminded everyone that years ago, on a similar issue, what “the town had decided.” We were all here trying to work out what the voice of the town was going to be on this issue, too.

That is hard work.  In deliberating, there are usually several things we want but we can’t have them all.  We have to decide what to give up, and how much we’re willing to give up, to get something else. If there’s a politician in the room, it’s easy to shrug off this work and demand that the politician fix it.  Worse, it’s easy to start demonizing and name-calling.

This summer of “town hall” fiascoes made me ill and the fall is turning out no better.  We have this sham democracy. Politicians need to meet and greet their constituencies in order to get reelected. And on the volatile issue of health care reform, citizens have nary an opportunity to think through and work through the quintessential political question of “what should we do.” Instead they’re invited to a town hall where the only opportunity to weigh in is to voice an opinion or ask a question, not to deliberate. At its best, this is a recipe for an illusion of democracy. At its worst it’s an invitation for a mob mentality, the kind we witnessed with Rep. Joe Wilson heckling Barack Obama at a joint session of Congress and then later witnessed when hordes of right-wingers descended on the National Mall to demonize Obama and all the ills they imagined.

We need to find ways to start deliberating together, to ask ourselves, what should we do and what are we willing to give up to get what we want. We need to think about the myriad consequences and effects of various courses of action. There are people trying to do this, including folks with the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation and with the National Issues Forums.  Be we need more spaces for deliberation, especially online.

The Permanent Campaign

The Obama administration’s outside arm, Organizing for America, is now adding the Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination to its roster of issues that it is calling on the American people to lobby for. We the people are being called on to help the administration pass its health care and Supreme Court battles.  These are good fights; I’m all for them.  But once again I’m disappointed in the model. As I posted back in January, organizing and mobilizing are two different things.  To mobilize the public is to get the public active in supporting a given proposal. To organize the public is to help the public for so that it can decide and articulate public will and create civic capacity for change.

As it stands, Organizing for America is trying to use the campaign model that worked so well to elect Barack Obama to work again to lobby for issues.  But this isn’t going to work.  In an electoral campaign people are being asked to do something, to focus on specific action for a specific day.  Albeit limited, this is public action. Now people are being asked to hold house meetings to talk about Obama’s health care policy, to learn about it, tell stories about what that policy would mean for them, get excited about it, and maybe write their members of Congress.

They are not being asked to deliberate.  They are not being asked to think through the issue and come up with their own ideas about what kind of health care policy would work.  They are not being asked to think outside the box that is being handed to them.  (Single payer, anyone?)

Okay, this may be better than nothing.  It is nice that government is paying attention to the people.  But I worry that this lack of imagination and playing it safe will be counterproductive and give the impression that all citizens can or need do is latch on to the policies that their favorite leaders have proposed when in fact it is important that people  work through and think through issues themselves, ideally in the company of others.  House meetings would be a great place to start.  But the agenda should not be how to get policy x to win; it should be to start from scratch and think through a variety of alternatives, including, for example, single payer or any other that seems at all promising.

There’s little like this to do on a Supreme Court nomination.  That issue is a straight up issue of lobbying.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  (And I’m proud I was part of an important campaign twenty years ago to block the nomination of one especially conservative Supreme Court nominee.) A house meeting on Supreme Court issues could have a very general agenda of thinking through the role of the courts, of how representative judges should be, about the hold of past precedent versus new thinking.

Public discussion, deliberation, and organizing is good for generating public will, and if that will happens to coincide with proposed public policy, then it can be an important engine for creating civic capacity for change.

Who are we waiting for?

During the Presidential campaign, candidate Obama invoked the language of community organizing and the civil rights movement, especially with the discourse of “yes, we can” and “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” That seemed fitting for a campaign that had a place for millions of people to take to the sidewalks and knock on doors to turn out votes.  Does it have a place in an administration?

Harry Boyte of the Humphrey school at the University of Minnesota seems to think it should.   But should it?  Does the buck stop at the President’s desk, or do we all share some deep responsibility to change this country?

Here’s a snippet of Boyte’s recent op-ed on the topic:

Over the first 100 days of his presidency, Barack Obama changed his message from “we” to “I.” The challenge for the president, if he is to achieve his administration’s potential to unleash the energy of the nation, is to return to and flesh out “yes, we can” in the everyday work of addressing our common problems.

Obama launched his campaign for president with the idea that “all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate.” He had learned a philosophy of civic agency — that we all must become agents of change — from his days as a community organizer in Chicago. And in extraordinary ways, he used the presidential campaign as a vehicle for taking the message of agency to the nation. “I’m asking you not only to believe in my ability to make change; I’m asking you to believe in yours,” read the campaign website. The message was expressed in campaign slogans such as “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” drawn from a song of the freedom movement of the 1960s.

It also infused the campaign’s field operation. As Tim Dickinson, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, put it in a review of how the field operation reflected an organizing approach, “The goal is not to put supporters to work but to enable them to put themselves to work, without having to depend on the campaign for constant guidance.” Field director Temo Figueros explained, “We decided that we didn’t want to train volunteers. We wanted to train organizers — folks who can fend for themselves.”

On Wednesday night, at the news conference marking the first 100 days of his administration, Obama was asked what he intends to do as the chief shareholder of some of the largest U.S. companies. “I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already,” he laughed. “I’ve got more than enough to do.”

The change has partly reflected the administration’s adjustment to the fierce pressures of the Washington press corps. As Peter Levine noted as early as December 2006, reporters and pundits assumed that Obama’s words about citizenship and involvement “were just throat-clearing.” Journalists and pundits constantly demand that he explain what he is going to do to solve the problems facing the country.

But the general citizenry outside of government is not composed of innocent bystanders. In our consumer-oriented society, we too easily assume that government’s role is to deliver the goods. Dominant models of civic action, as important as they are — deliberation, community service, advocacy — fit into the customer paradigm, as ways to make society more responsive and humane. The older concepts at the heart of productive citizenship — that democracy is the work of us all, that government is “us,” not “them” — have sharply eroded.  [read more]

If we all had a role, what would that be? I want to agree with Harry, but I’m not sure how to “operationalize” that on day-to-day matters, including waging and ending wars.

My guess is that we can still be the ones we’ve been waiting for if we realize the importance of public will and civic capacity.

When I was a kid, my family adopted a retired, champion Afghan hound.  The owners said that she could jump our eight-foot fence, but not to worry — she didn’t know she could.

Likewise, I think that there is tremendous power that the public has to create or block change, but generally we seem to be oblivious to this power, even though it has tremendous effects large and small.  I’m referring to the power that Hannah Arendt noted that is created when people talk and act together — the capacity that is created to create and transform a public world.

As for how to operationalize this, we need practices and spaces to make this real.

Engaging Citizens from the White House

The White House now has a new office of citizen participation, so it’s time to set some things straight.  First, some applause is in order.  It is high time that elected officials started paying attention to what the public has to say.  But second, a lot of caution is needed.  Who is engaging whom?  how?  for what?

For over a decade now there’s been a strong movement for participatory democracy and civic engagement, and this has originated within civil society.  Elected officials have barely noticed, except when the public starts slapping them around.  New technologies exponentially increased opportunities for citizens to engage each other, to attend to matters of common concern, and to use new media to get their voices heard.

In his 2004 bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Howard Dean and his staff figured out how to tap this burgeoning new form of social and political organization to rally for his candidacy.  A short four years later Barack Obama’s team took web tools and old fashioned community organizing skills and won the presidency.  So in terms of citizen engagement, it seems like Barack Obama is master of the universe.

We the public, though, shouldn’t look to the White House to organize us.  That’s our job.  There is no substitute for self-organizing, certainly not if it is to be democratic.

What the White House can do is be a good partner, set up channels for communication, and in general do whatever it can to let a million flowers of civic association bloom and make a difference.

We have to be careful that a White House office of civic engagment doesn’t become the office of turning citizens into public interest lobbyists.  It might be well and good for citizens to lobby their elected officials to enact this or that policy.  But lobbying ain’t organizing.

(I know. I used to have the title of “community organizer” for a public interest organization, but my real job was to manufacture the illusion of public outcry, not the reality of a strong public sphere that will decide for itself what is just or unjust.  But this is material for another post.)

So I call on my fellow citizens not to look to Obama’s administration to be the leader on citizen engagement.  And I call on Katie Jacobs Stanton, the new director of this new office, to think of her job as opening a pathway between the govenrment and the public sphere.  That pathway should not be for telling and selling the public on pet policies, though some of that may well go on. As Andrew Nachison cautions,

The Obama team’s precision with producing and staging events and using Web 2.0 digital tools to connect and organize millions of volunteers sets the stage for an era of political engagement unlike any before. It also sets the stage for a system of public opinion management, manipulation and manufacturing of consent drawn directly from the film Wag The Dog, in which governance is theater and politics is lit and directed by unseen artists.

The new office should create pathways through which the public can convey to elected officials what its concerns are and what kind of policies it will decide to support.

But as for the act of deliberating, choosing, and forming public will on matters of public concern, that is something the public has to do for itself.

Obama’s Pragmatism

On his blog, Requiem for Certainty, pragmatist philosopher Colin Koopman dissects Obama’s inaugural speech and finds lots of good stuff for both pragmatist philosophy and democratic politics, including the recurring pragmatist theme of hope.

The inaugural address also made a pragmatist promise in another key moment.  Obama spoke of “stale political arguments” concerning the relative size of government and market, state and economy, or what is so often today described under the loose banners of ‘public’ and ‘private’.  What has gone stale in these arguments, he seemed to suggest, is the posturing that would suggest that we can know in advance of actual experience what respective roles governments and markets should play in our lives, as if we can cleave off public regulation from private enterprise all at once and be done with it.  His point, I take it, was that we should approach the question of what roles governments and markets ought to play in a more experimental frame of mind.  Sometimes governmental agencies will be needed to get the job done.  Sometimes only markets will work.  The old view that one of these is public and one is private misleads us from recognizing that we ought to invoke both in confidence as situations call for.

Instead of an old politics of certitude, Colin sees in Obama’s speech a politics of experimentalism.  We aren’t going to know in advance what will work, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for progress.  We need to go in with an open mind, try new things, and see what actually makes a difference.