Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

November 28, 2007

Re: “Hey, Young Americans, Here’s a Text for You”

Filed under: culture, history, media, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 12:18 pm

Naomi Wolf, the self-appointed soccer-mom of American democracy, breaks out her condescending and faux-paternalistic ranting in a piece called “Hey, Young Americans, Here’s a Text for You.” No doubt a condensed version of her book: “The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot.”

I agree with Ms. Wolf that democracy and civic participation are very weak in this country. I agree with some of her points about education. It is shameful that “only 45.9 percent of those surveyed knew that the sentence “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” is in the Declaration of Independence.” Government class in my high school was a joke. But, it was a joke because everyone was forced to take it. There is nothing worse than a classroom with actively disinterested students. The tougher nut to crack is how to get people more interested in participating in their government. Which is the salient point behind the education figures:

The study also found that the more students increase their civic knowledge during college, the more likely they are to vote and engage in other civic activities. And vice versa — civic illiteracy equals civic inaction.

Interested citizens are more likely to increase their knowledge and participate in government. Disinterested citizens do not increase their knowledge and do not participate.

I understand where the students quotes are coming from, although I don’t think the 16-year-old from Menlo Park is quoting their teacher correctly. I’m almost certain it was along the lines of “you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspaper.” Good advice, as the Joe Klein debacle shows.

The problem is that people don’t see an alternative. Our voting system is functionally restrained to two parties. I’ve written why this is the case before, so I won’t repeat the arguments here. In this system, the mass media has an extraordinary ability to shape an election. It takes a lot of money to even get access to media outlets. So, it is typically corporate backed candidates that work themselves to the top. The media doesn’t focus on policy, they focus on the most middle-school grade gossip. The way this system works does have limited potential.  However, it is important to note that this power was strengthened through technology changes.  So, it is possible that new technology can undue this trend.

Ms. Wolf then proceeds to attack the left, saying it put to much stock in communist ideas and abandoned patriotism. First of all, I feel Marx is an important thinker, and his ideas are worth learning about (I will not vouch for Lenin or Mao).  Second, one should not judge Marx by his followers as Marx himself remarked: “All I know is I’m not a Marxist.” Third, I would say a lack of social consciousness is one of the key demotivators to civic action. If one believes that they live in a fundamentally classless and equatable society that they’ve found themselves on the short end of, a rational conclusion is to blame yourself.  However, if one understands that we live in society with classes and inequity, we see the necessity to change those structures through civic action.   As for Ms. Wolf’s comments about patriotism, after the Vietnam War, the U.S. went through its own version of Dolchstoßlegende. This sentiment is probably epitomized in the jingoistic Rambo movies. But, the other point that I’d like to make is that patriotism means different things to different people. Some people consider what John Kerry did, to serve in Vietnam, and come back to speak out against the war to be unpatriotic. Others consider what John Kerry did to be the very definition of patriotic. To say the left has let the right monopolize patriotism is senseless. The right’s version of patriotism allows no dissent, the left’s does. One is easy to demonstrate as the principles on which this country was founded. The other is so baldly false that people who dare to claim it are as busy wrapping flags around their ideas as they are stating them.  Don’t confuse the effort and tiring facade of patriotism with the substance of it.

Her final points about civic action and history education are somewhat infuriating.  American history is typically taught through the lens of great leaders, not social movements. Students are taught that our leaders see problems throughout the population and responsibly act on them. This overarching view is one of the core reasons for complacency, and much more lethal than simple cynicism.  There is no reason to do anything because the great leaders will look after the people.  So, calling for more education is fine, but attention has to also to be paid to what students are actually taught.  If one calls for more patriotic, history education, don’t be surprised to find a more complacent populace instead of a more active one.

However, on Ms. Wolf’s final point, I can’t help but feel that she is extraordinarily blind. The most hopeful sign that our democracy is turning around is not the lackluster performance of her “American Freedom Campaign.” It is Dr. Ron Paul. Although, I don’t care for some of his positions, Ron Paul is a vanguard of a vast grass-roots effort.   Ron Paul is an alternative that has the potential to wake-up a complacent democracy.  His success is a litmus test for the potential for a reinvented and reinvigorated American democracy.  Once people are more engaged, I suspect some of the other problems will disappear.  They are symptoms, not causes and the good doctor just might be a part of the cure.

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