Sunday, July 18, 2010

Meretrix Activists

I want to know what became of the changes

we waited for love to bring.

Were they only the fitful dreams

of some greater awakening?

I've been aware of the time going by,

They say in the end it's the wink of an eye

And when the morning light comes streaming in

You'll get up and do it again,


Jackson Browne, The Pretender

I was thinking recently of some of the geeky things I did as a kid. Some of those things were expressions of nascent idealism and activism. My family was living in Southern California and I had become convinced that the place had to have a decent, modern mass transit system. So I ripped some blank pages from a class notebook and penciled a paragraph at the top of one of the sheets stating that I was collecting signatures to make the Government give us all a slick, technically advanced monorail system. (Those weren't the exact words I used – hey, I was only twelve years old at the time.)

I took my “petition” around to a couple of supermarkets and a nearby Thrifty Drug store, and asked the store managers if I could ask people to sign up for a modern mass transit system. I don't know what impression I made on them, but they all said “No.” So I knocked on people's doors and asked for signatures. I even managed to get a few. But to this day I can't remember what finally happened to my “petition.”

That experience formed a picture in my mind of participatory democracy as an expression of the energies and choices of motivated, idealistic people freely volunteering their time for causes they believe in, and manifesting their belief in the championing of both candidates and the citizen-sponsored initiatives that are supposed to be the backbone of direct democracy. But lately that picture has fallen apart. It's not as if someone threw a rock suddenly at the picture frame, but rather that the entire picture has been left out in the rain for a while.

I'm thinking of the last several months, and how my old employer was slow and very light on work, and then there was a period where we were so light on work that I stayed home for about five or six weeks. And I was diligently scouring and Craigslist and other venues for employment offers. I am an engineer by schooling, but I have to confess that I looked at some of the other headings under “Jobs” on Craigslist. One such heading was titled, “Nonprofit Sector.” From January until just a few weeks ago, this heading was chock full of announcements that ran something like this: “ACTIVISTS NEEDED! $9-$14/hour,” or, “Fight for Change and Make $$$!”

To be sure, such ads generate a response. I got to meet several of the people who responded to these ads over the course of the late winter and spring. They tended to congregate on MAX trains, collecting petition signatures from a captive audience as we all whisked from station to station. Or a person could run into them at a New Seasons or Whole Foods market or at Trader Joe's, or in front of a post office, or at the Lloyd Center mall. Some of them seemed to be representatives of genuinely counter-cultural, grassroots organizations. And some of them actually seemed to believe in what they were doing. I am thinking especially of several petitioners I met who were collecting signatures for some medical marijuana initiative. (Now that's “grassroots”! But I didn't sign their petition, sorry to say.) I was also glad to meet people from the Bus Project.

There were also signature gatherers whose masters had a more troubling agenda. For instance, there was a group gathering signatures for a new casino east of Portland under the premise (and promise) that this casino would benefit schools, police departments, parks, and other public agencies. However, the backers of the casino initiative are in Toronto, Canada, and they have spent over $800,000 to insure that their measure is on the November ballot. I met a lot of signature gatherers working for this initiative, including one group a few weeks ago consisting of newly-hired canvassers on a side street who were being given an open-air training talk in the art of “selling” their petition to potential signers. (I have to tell you, they reminded me of a flock of pigeons converging on a loaf of bread.) I asked a couple of them how they found out about this job, and whether they knew anything about the petition for which they were about to collect signatures. Craigslist works wonders, doesn't it?

Then there was the usual suspects from Vote Oregon out collecting signatures for initiatives sponsored by Kevin Mannix, Bill Sizemore and Loren Parks. One such initiative, Petition 13, would impose mandatory minimum jail/prison sentences for certain felony sex crimes and driving under the influence convictions. I saw some of the “Vote Oregon” operatives at work selling this initiative, and they were slick - “Would you like to sign a petition to keep sex predators off the streets?” Who wouldn't say “Yes!”? There are only three problems, however. First, they don't tell you what laws exist at present to provide the very protection they claim their initiative will accomplish. In other words, maybe we don't really need this initiative. Second, the fine print of their initiative targets things other than sexual predation. And that leads to the third point, namely, that Mannix, Sizemore and Parks have long wanted to create a prison-industrial complex in Oregon just like that which exists in California, because they see prisons as a lucrative growth opportunity for themselves.

The thing about almost all of the signature gatherers is that they were all paid. The money came from somewhere. It was a lot of money. It would be nice to think that all that money came from altruistic souls giving their bounty of spare change to altruistic, civic-minded nonprofits concerned only for the common good. But the reality is that in too many cases, the money came from “point sources” – individuals or small groups of individuals with a lot of wealth and a vested interest in using the political system to generate a little more wealth for themselves. Anymore, it takes a lot to get an initiative qualified for a state ballot. And states are populous, big places. And getting people to notice your petition takes a lot of expensive advertising. My run-ins with signature gatherers were yet another reminder that the political system in the United States is almost wholly owned and run by wealthy people, whose sole aim is to engineer the system for the maximization of their own personal profit. Almost gone are the days of true grassroots activism of the kind that makes kids draft petitions and knock on doors just for the fun of it.

I won't even get into the funding that goes into candidacy, except to say that over the last month I have become rather frightened by everyone who is running for political office, both locally and at the Federal level. I recently rode past a big sign saying “We Need So-And-So for Governor!” and asking myself, “Just why do we need So-and-So? Who's paying that so-and-so to run for office?” Here's what would be very nice to have – political candidates who told us all the straight truth, who said, “I make no promises to 'fix' the economy and bring prosperity back again. Those days are over. American society in general and our locality in particular face an unavoidable contraction of the official, formal economy, due to resource depletion, environmental degradation, and the resulting collapse of our debt-based financial arrangements. All I can offer is to tell you the truth, and to arrange our government in such a way as to facilitate your adaptation to our new reality.” It goes without saying that there are no candidates willing to say such things, and few voters willing to hear such things. It's the people who promise the moon right now – and the people dumb enough to vote for them – who scare me.

Some bloggers have proposed a boycott of the next elections, and a few of them have gone so far as to say that such a boycott might withdraw enough support from our corrupt political system that it crashes. It would certainly be nice to have a government that had been rendered incapable of ruining our lives. But if you want to crash the system, a voting boycott is not enough. Some systems react strangely when lightly loaded. If there were a massive voting boycott in this country, who knows what kooks might make their way into office? It would be easy for the wealthy to find a few people who were willing to vote a certain way in exchange for a few bucks, thus buying an election and guaranteeing that our government continued to be a government by the rich, for the rich.

If one really wanted to withdraw his support from our present government, he would have to go farther than choosing not to vote. He would have to take away the power the government has to accomplish things and to funnel wealth to the wealthy. The removal of this power could be done legally, but it would be painful. For it would require that people chose to live very frugally – thus reducing the money that flowed to large businesses via the mass participation of consumers in a consumer economy. Secondly, once people drastically reduced their expenditures, they would have to drastically and voluntarily reduce their income. This would reduce the revenue available to the Government via taxes. Not many people are willing to take the first step. Even fewer are willing to take the second.

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