Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fearing Democracy in the Hands of a Consumerist Electorate

On Florida’s ballot next week is a measure which would give citizens the power to vote on any development which would impact a region in a substantial way. Currently, such decision making takes place on county commissions which are increasingly dominated by developers with the result that Paradise is being paved to put up a parking lot.

The state teacher’s union has recommended its members vote no on this amendment. As a colleague revealed last week, this recommendation arises out of support for the AFLCIO who sees the amendment as potentially detrimental to the construction industry where many of its members work in Florida.

It’s a bit ironic that a union whose business it is, in part, to create thinking socially responsible citizens would recommend against the right of citizens to determine their own futures in terms of development. At some level that doesn’t evince much confidence in the job their own members – here, public school teachers – are doing.

This revelation has led to a discussion on our faculty list which has thus far been relegated to myself and the colleague who provided the explanation for the FEA recommendation against Amendment Four. But it has also prompted some serious concerns regarding my own vote on this amendment.

In theory I favor citizen oversight. But increasingly I see few actual citizens and an awful lot of consumers, as this exchange from the faculty list reveals:

Harry, it seems to me that the fear you express here is a general fear of democracy itself, in the hands of a largely uneducated electorate, ignorant of where their interests really lie. And I share that fear--it seems to me the problem we're facing, the problem of a largely ignorant citizenry, is precisely THE challenge for us as "educators." And since those who have been in that role for the last several decades have apparently done a pretty bad job of it overall, we seem to be facing the threat of our government being placed in the hands of people who, for example, don't even understand what the First Amendment says. Pretty scary, all right.

I wish I felt ignorance was the only problem. Ignorance is curable. But I observe this to be something much more pernicious.

What I observe is that many Americans see themselves as consumers, not citizens. Consumers are passive recipients of entertainment and consumer goods. We pride ourselves on making choices even as the choices we make fall within a limited set provided by consumer goods and services providers.  Increasingly, that includes our candidates for office. Our choices are corporate lite and corporate right. And the corporate media insures that the emperor will never be informed by any little boys that he has no clothes. Whatever else results from consumption of corporate media, it is rarely critical consciousness.

But this ongoing lobotomization is consensual, ultimately. It's a lot easier to be a consumer than a citizen because the latter actually requires something  of the individual beyond mere passivity. Citizenship requires becoming educated, remaining informed, being willing to commit to critical reflection on issues and candidates. It requires the capacity and the will to see the larger picture - how one's vote affects "we, the people" and not a mere simplistic inquiry into whether one is
"better off than you were four years ago." In short, it requires a commitment that
consumerism rejects - "Talk all the time! Obey your thirst! Just Do It!". As my  honors student explained it to me earlier this term, "We're not informed, we don't want to become informed and so our choice is not to vote." 

To paraphrase the Gospel of John, Jefferson wept.

It is my observation that our public schools have largely failed to inculcate any sense of citizenship and its demand for commitment in our students. I attribute that in part to the perhaps well intentioned but ultimately high misguided approach of high stakes testing driven pedagogy of the past decade. This approach has neglected the subject matter of history and government on the tests themselves suggesting their lack of ultimate importance to students. Ask yourself how many times you've had your students inquire as to whether something was going to be on the test before reading, listening in class, much less taking notes.

High stakes testing pedagogy also has inculcated a bottom line mentality in our students which plays well into consumerism where the inquiry "What's in it for me?" becomes the ultimate criterion as to one's engagement of anything. It lends itself to reductionism in thought and minimalism in engagement. Such does not bode well for a democracy which depends upon socially responsible citizens.

I do agree that awareness of the provisions of our Constitution and Bill of Rights is minimal and usually deficient if not distorted. This is true of our larger public and not just our students. What never ceases to amaze me is observing the same literalist/fundamentalist approach that one sees in religion being applied to the Constitution. Students argue that "separation of church and state is not in the First Amendment" which is true if one only looks at the letter of the law but is simplistic when considering the interpretation - and thus application - of the law over time by the courts. Many aspects of constitutional law that our citizenry take for granted from the freedom of expression to the right to privacy are not in the US Constitution verbatim but have resulted from interpretation of the civil liberties which are delineated there. 

Of course, a standardized test driven approach to education would readily anticipate such a result. Answers must fit into one of four possibilities offered the consumer/student who then chooses from among them. The notion that one would have to read, critically reflect upon the language of the text and then apply it to a factual scenario is beyond the scope of what the average consumer is willing to engage.

It's little wonder then that you hear frightening polemics from folks who in the past would have been considered crackpots or simpletons but today become the primary focus of infotainment. You hear an awful lot of ignorance - much of it perhaps willful - in this rhetoric. But you also hear
an awful lot of self-focus and tribal thinking. And, increasingly, you hear an awful lot of rage and irrationality. I wonder what the breaking point of a country is when the self-focused thinking of children and tribal group think of junior high kids is elevated to the primary basis for decision making in a  nation-state.

While I clearly do not like what I see when I look around me in America today, I do think we must take this reality seriously. As I used to tell my juvie clients, "We don't get to choose our facts today but we must deal with them when we go into that courtroom." At heart I am completely conflicted on Amdt. 4. I want to give citizens a check on unregulated development that has turned the state in which my family has resided now six generations into a giant strip mall. I  think they have a right to make such decisions. On the other hand, when I look around me, I see few citizens and an awful lot of consumers easily swayed by distorted advertising and disinformation. I'm not sure why they would be any better judges of developmental questions than the status quo.

There's a bit of a cynical Catch 22 here - the status quo is dominated by corporate interests who act in a manner adverse to the interests of many if not most residents. The alternative is to commit such decisions to a public which is largely dominated by corporate interests capable of distorting the issues and disinforming the public who is largely disengaged and disinterested in responsible citizenship. 

I seem to remember this is precisely the situation predicted by the scholars of the Frankfurt School back 60 years ago. Weber’s Iron Cage of unregulated capitalism snaps shut.

OK. Enough rambling for a Saturday morning. My yard is calling, my very parched jungle demanding some attention in this day 29 of October drought in this third hottest year on record.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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