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What's a Citizen to Do?

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What's a Citizen to Do?

All the things to which I give myself

grow rich and spend me.

- Rainer Maria Rilke, from "Der Dichter," New Poems [1907]

What's a citizen to do?

It is of course a cliché to say that the Information Age has brought with it an Information Deluge. We've had global media access for almost two decades now; we have Internet message boards and on-line social networking forums like MySpace and Facebook; and we have cell phones and iPhones and Blackberrys and text messaging. But nowhere is this deluge more apparent than in election year politics, especially presidential races.

Presidential candidates have Home Pages with downloadable policy positions. YouTube has commercials, debates, and alleged exposés. We have nightly network and cable programs teeming with talking heads of every political and ideological stripe imaginable; and of course we still have what we've always had: traditional newspaper reporting and Op-Ed pieces from the major national newspapers as well as small hometown rags - but even the smallest of these have extra content on their web pages! But the problem now isn't simply having access to too much information; the problem now is the inability to discern what information is important and what isn't as we are swept away down this information torrent.

The nature of progress is for life to become more complex for human beings. But it's also a cliché to say that technology and the Information Age have simplified our lives, made them less "nasty, brutish, and short", as Thomas Hobbes would say, or have even given us more leisure time. But is that really true? Just as most people tend to live up to the level of their discretionary income, it would seem that most people tend to live up to the level of their discretionary time: they decide to have more children; or they decide to enroll the children they already have in more "character-building" social and sporting activities. They schedule more vacation time, but then take their cellphones, laptops, and Blackberrys with them so they can do work from the hotel pool, the beach - even during a quiet dinner alone with their spouse or partner. They decide to pursue other interests like going back to school to pursue the career they feel they should have originally chosen, or simply to take courses to enhance or round out their lives.

But back in the late 1800's, when the French quasi-sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his seminal and at times prescient tome analyzing the nascent American experiment in democracy, both technology and society were unarguably simpler. However, even in a fledgling nation where this new creature called an "American" trudged through untrodden territory both natural and cultural - while still being occupied with the mundane that every life requires - it would seem that back then there was a much more prevalent sense of urgency to participate in public political discourse. Tocqueville relates, somewhat hyperbolically, the following:

The cares of political life engross a most prominent place in the occupation of a citizen in the United States, and almost the only pleasure of which an American has any idea is to take part in the Government, and to discuss the part he has taken. This feeling pervades the most trifling habits of life; even the women frequently attend public meetings, and listen to political harangues as a recreation after their household labours. Debating clubs are to a certain extent a substitute for theatrical entertainments. An American cannot converse, but he can discuss; and when he attempts to talk he falls into a dissertation. 1

Even though much of average Joe Lunchpail's political discourse is now done in coffee shops, work place break rooms, and bars, one could argue that most people end up relying on the sound bites they hear while getting themselves and their kids ready for work and school; on their way to getting their morning cup of coffee (which basically just helps them face the workday); chatting around the proverbial water cooler; and on their way back home from work or school at the end of the day. And they either dismiss these sound bites as so much propaganda, depending on the source, or only truly listen to (and repeat) the ones that confirm their previous biases.

An anomaly in all of this may be the youngest segment of the American electorate. There have been reports and analyses in the mainstream media suggesting that twenty-somethings are perhaps more politically active than their thirty or forty-something counterparts. According to the 2000 U.S. census, there were about 38 million twenty-somethings, or about 14% of the total U.S. population at that time. Undoubtedly that number has grown in the past 8 years.

One reason for their more active involvement in politics may be that a little over half (58% of those between 25 - 29 had some college or more in 2000) of these potential voters are in various stages of collegiate matriculation. And even though many of these kids are ear-deep in course work, extra-curricular activities, and possibly part-time jobs, presumably they aren't married, don't have kids, a house, or pets. Additionally, those who have already left college and are in their early twenties may not yet be married or have a house, kids or any of the other trappings of adulthood. Perhaps both of these groups - which would comprise most of the twenty-something voting bloc - may have more time to research the issues, and maybe even participate in grass-roots organizing or actively working for candidates' political campaigns.

But the rest of us are ear-deep in work ourselves, which takes up an enormous amount of time; and we sleep (probably not enough!) - and that takes up an almost equally large amount of time. And somehow we find time to help our kids with their homework, feed them, dress them, and shuttle them back and forth between their endless array of extra-curricular activities. We walk our dogs, clean out the cat litter boxes, clean the house, and take care of the yard. When we find ourselves with the inclination and the energy to actually dig a little deeper than sound bite level, we end up gravitating to those media outlets that do tend to confirm our preconceived notions: Rush Limbaugh or Air America; The Washington Post or The Washington Times. And the list goes on.

Presidential hopefuls speak past each other. The media dissect the candidates' respective strategies with an assiduous pedantry that would make a philosopher proud. But they don't dissect their actual policies, at least not with the same fastidiousness. They go on and on about how candidate so-and-so would benefit more from mentioning such-and-such at this particular time than at some other time in front of some other audience. They discuss campaign tactics and attack ads.

Even if we do find ourselves with the time and energy to scrutinize the specific policies of the candidates, we have to admit that the vast majority of us aren't scientists, so we can't evaluate the models for global climate change, or other major scientific issues and ethically-charged scientific dilemmas of our day. We aren't political scientists either, so we have to rely on our own predilections regarding the best way to structure and govern society, and hope the representatives for whom we voted will actually implement what they stumped for. We aren't economists, so we don't understand the latest theories of taxation, nor can we follow or understand the voluminous minutiae of budgetary policy for a proposed $3.1 trillion budget. We aren't ambassadors or attachés, so again we must rely on our own sometimes-xenophobic biases regarding relations with foreign nations. We aren't covert CIA operatives or Intelligence Officers, so we don't really know what's going on in foreign countries - politically, culturally or militarily.

It seems that the world - with all of its social, cross-cultural, environmental, scientific, and political upheaval and flux - has whipped itself up into such an intractable maelstrom that it has left us so far behind as to be forever beyond comprehension by the average citizen.

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Steve Neumann is a dog guide trainer and instructor of the blind and visually impaired for The Seeing Eye. He lives in New Jersey with his German Shepherd, Shawn. Steve writes poetry, philosophical and political essays, and opinion pieces.
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