I just finished reading a book yesterday by David Gerrold called Leaping to the Stars. It's mostly just a great action-adventure story, but like nearly all science fiction, it does hit upon some rather weighty issues including the relationship betwen man and technology and the nature of good and evil. In the context of a political science class, he described how the United States had collapsed after three hundred years. It was almost as if he was channeling both Howard Dean and Barack Obama when this book was written in 2001/2002 (first edition was printed in 2002, well before Dean exploded onto the national scene).
When asked why the US had failed, the students responded with a litany of complaints, all of which we're familiar with in some form or another (illegal aliens, liberals, fundies, greed, special interests, etc.). After the students ran our of people to blame, the professor explained the truth in a way that I think will prove to be prophetic.
The first point he makes is that the students are themselves a part of the cause by their unwillingness or inability to research anything. They just regurgitate what they've been taught without actually understanding it or - most importantly - being able to learn from it. Education by bulimia, as Gerrold's professor so aptly puts it.
Indeed, I have said myself that we as a nation are losing our critical thinking skills. Such skills are no longer taught in this country, largely as a result of having to teach to standardized tests. That is, in fact, the deadliest legacy of No Child Left Behind - that we are raising generations of citizens incapable of independent thought. Students are told what facts they need to learn, they write it all down, re-read it all the night before the test, regurgitate it all for the test, and then promptly forget it.
We are, I think, creating a generation of citizens incapable of informed scepticism, self-examination, anything other than blind faith. That is most dangerous indeed, in the implications that presents for the very core concept of how a free civilization interacts with its government. Forget the tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of ignorance is far more damning.
The second point he makes strikes right at the core of Dean's message two years later. Largely as a result of that ignorance we are losing our sense of community. The great difference in our form of government, the thing which made it so unique was the idea that all were created equal. The implication of that, of course, is that we are all weakened by the weakening of the rights of any among us. We're all in this boat together and we either float or sink as one.
The Republicans are using this to their advantage, but I don't believe they caused it. Quite frankly, I think our own success caused it. We started off with a society which was designed to encourage independent thought and individuality, and then, through our technological and economic successes have enabled that individualism to run amok, with so many opportunities for people to isolate themselves with others like them that they've lost their sense of the larger community.
If you live in a wealthy suburb and attend a nice affluent church every sunday and you work in a sterile office where all your coworkers are well educated and affluent, and then you go home and watch television shows that focus only on hyped-up superficial interpersonal politics (read reality-TV) or sporting events that maybe give you pride for your city but no real connection with anyone, how can you possibly expect to understand the plight of those not like you? How can you expect to help move society forward when your definition of forward includes no one outside your small realm of understanding?
The Republicans, to borrow from former mayor Daley of Chicago, didn't create that order, they're there to preserve that order. It is usefull to them because all of that discord enables them to focus on their own real agenda without anyone noticing it amid the din of the culture war.
The third and final piece of the puzzle is largely a result of the first two. Government is only a tool, a machine, to be used for a purpose like any other. Our government was designed in such a way that the people themselves are the engineers - government rules only with the consent of the governed. When you understand that, you can repair or improve the machine to better suit your needs. But, at the same time, would you replace the engine in your car with a steam engine or a jet engine if only the fan belt needed to be replaced? If it's broken fix what needs fixing, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Sadly, however, most Americans have stopped seeing the government as a machine or a tool designed to be controlled only by them. If they see it as a tool at all, they see it as the tool of others - the powerfull, the wealthy, the well-connected. Worse yet, however, many no longer see it as a tool at all, but rather as an entity unto itself, controlling them but uncontrollable. The people have lost their ability to use the tool and fear that it is merely using them.
Everytime a person says, "My vote doesn't count," they are relinquishing control of the machine. Every time a person declares, "This government only represents the wealthy and the powerfull," they enable the destruction of our society. Those are the wages of cynicism and thoughtless materialism. It is incumbent on the people themselves to wrest control of this machine from those who would modify it for ill. Only the governed can guarantee that the government works for good.
We are not cogs in this machine, we are it's engineers. We control it with every lever in the voting booth. We guide it with every query to our representatives. We make the machine work for us every time we demonstrate or write letters or work the polls. Only we have the power to make it work more efficiently for all of us. When we forget that we allow others to manipulate it.
That is perhaps the biggest, most important part of Dean's campaign, both for the whitehouse and now as chair of the DNC: he is trying to teach us how to use the machine again. By first reminding us that we do have that power, he is helping to wrest control back away from the greedy manipulators. By reminding us that we're all in it together and exposing the far right's attempts to divide and conquer, he is helping to ensure that the machine is used for good, not evil.
That is what the grass roots movement is fundamentally about. I dare say it is nothing short of a second American revolution, one which, if it is to succeed will result not in the ousting of the Republicans from power by replacing them with someone else, but will result in the reawakening of the citizenry to their true potential. It must result in a renewed understanding of and faith in the amazing machine that is our government and it must culminate in reeducating the people in how to use that machine.
We must begin teaching people how to be active, creative particpants in the experiment, not merely loyal or usable subjects. We must inspire people to see that the well being of each is determined by the well being of the community, that we are only as free and as successful as the least among us and that our government is a tool to designed acheive that. We must rekindle people's faith in the social contract. If we do not succeed in any part of that, the Great Experiment will fail.