Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Other Side of the American Dream

It is often a good practice, in my opinion, to look at something - an object, an abstraction, a concept - upside down, inside out, or backwards, just to see what else may appear.

The buzz about an “enthusiasm gap” afflicting Democratic Party supporters as opposed to highly motivated Republicans has therefore led me to examine the notion of whether or not politicians have any enthusiasm for us. After all, we are in the odd position of employing these people - yes, we elect/hire them, pay them - in money as a salaries and expense accounts funded by our tax dollars as well as notoriety that often translates later to huge payoffs in the private sector - yet they are the ones making decisions that govern us.

In the process, politicians listen to input from lobbyists paid by those who are most definitely not us, and not likely to share our interest. To insure our future votes, they work to gain financial support - how many fundraising dinners can you afford to attend annually? Do you think the rhetoric at these venues would reflect your interests?

Of course, we can always fire them, but how many bosses in your experience have to wait 2 - 6 years before giving you the axe, even if you don’t do a thing that they expect of you? Not a recipe for responsiveness, let alone enthusiasm, in my book. After hearing Arianna Huffington sound the alarm on PBS, I believe that intelligent actions could have been taken every step of the way better serve the Americans, and many still can be implemented, if the people empowered to make the decisions simply care to do so.

Now, turning the issue on its side, how enthusiastic are we about ourselves? Be honest about how you interact with media, I can tell by the content of the headlines, home pages, trends and banners I see every day that many, many Americans spend more time reading celebrity gossip and fashion stories, or watching oddball videos and cat-fighting housewives (some of whom wind up as celebrities in the gossip), than they invest in exploring the issues that actually affect their own lives. And while one can blame the news media for perhaps not trying hard enough, we have to accept the fact that media are monetized based upon people looking, and only we can decide what we look at.

Which means, like the audience at a magic show, we are falling into an illusion because we are not looking in the right place. We see the ads, hear the sound bytes, and repeat the slogans with our friends, then go about our business without seeking any further information. If we want politicians to pay attention to us, we need to refresh our eyes and be like the little kid in the audience who see the trick and shouts out “I saw what he did!”

Voting is important, but weighing in with your vote alone is may not be enough, especially in this age of changing voting procedures. Last week I took time out of a packed schedule to vote in a primary election. When my paper ballot, damaged by the poll worker removing it from the pad, did not clear the scanner, the woman officially overseeing the process told me to get a new form, the woman in charge of the pad refused (after seeing my filled out ballot, by the way) and insisted they had to discuss things and I would simply have to wait.

I insisted that if my vote were not counted in a timely fashion and I had to leave without voting it would be “all over Facebook in a hot second.” Within five minutes my new sheet cleared the scanner and I was out of that purgatory of a one-day corporate culture. Which I hope increases the enthusiasm of my representatives for me, at least.

As individuals, we have unprecedented power to communicate our concerns via e-mail, blogging and social medial. As realists, we should understand that we need to use it to the fullest extent possible, because we can be certain those who would rather not have their actions examined are already doing their utmost to distract us from the dialogue. At the extreme, legislation recently proposed by Senator Lieberman that was purported to give the President an Internet “kill switch” gave me dystopian nightmares, and the fact that it may actually limit existing executive powers is even scarier. So, use it or lose it - write it, read it, and if it moves you when you read it, share it.

There are no shortcuts, despite what the uber-right-wing mountebanks or whispering conspiracy theorists want you to believe. Riffing on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Hosanna”, a landslide of change-loving Americans chanting “O-Bama, A-Bama, Bama Bama-O” did not magically save us all, and simply switching to sensibility of the last verse (“where is it now?) is not going to help either. We need to be informed and act, even in a small way, for each change we wish to see. Drops become waves in social media.

As a piece of conceptual art, a few years ago I created a petition that asked people to simply sign under the statement “Yes, I am living what is left of the American Dream.” It left open the questions of just what it was, what had been lost, and what it meant to each of us. If that dream is the idea that we are free here to pursue success on our own terms, the other side of that must be an understanding that we may have to work hard or even fight to retain that freedom to realize our potential.

image: "Pear & Balanced" ink on paper 2009 by Linda DiGusta, scroll created for the group exhibition Slow News International in Honolulu, Hawai'i.