POSTED: 24 January 2004 - 11:00am

The Challenge of Our Time

by Carol Bain: Pres League of Women's Voters on 24 January 2004

A country's citizens face varying challenges during the development of the nation. For our parent's time, facing World War II as a nation was frightening and at the same time unifying. I try to imagine the courage it took to accept the concept of an entire world at war. It must have felt overwhelming at times, but standing up together and facing the challenge must have been exhilarating. What is most amazing is that the peoples of Germany and Japan were just as caught up in their own feelings of momentous destiny. So many individuals participated and took action for the cause, no matter how small.

Then I think of the tremendous emotional conflicts and struggle as the pressures built up in the early 1800's which led some state's citizens to feel their way of life threatened enough to declare succession and eventual civil war. It took the best communicator in the world at that time, Abraham Lincoln, to define the confrontation so clearly in speeches published in newspapers so that populations knew what they were fighting over. We were lucky no major power interfered during that conflict, because the nation was weakened and more people died than in any war since. The wounds took so long to heal the country still walks with a limp.

The courage, and determination, it took to first organize, meet together, join forces, and then actually declare independence from the British empire is hard for me to comprehend. Only about one-third of the population was really resisting colonial power. Another one-third did not care for the unpopular idea of revolution and ignored it; even though the stakes were so high-- truly life and death. But at least a large enough segment of the population faced the choice of independence and democracy versus occupation and imperial control. It could only have been their ideals and true belief in strong principles that held together those who were resisting.

During the course of a country's development, varying challenges face the generations. Ours is just budding, but the flower is indeed on the vine. I wish had had Lincoln's oratory and speech writing skills, as he would probably have a little story prepared to help caramelize the slippery concepts. Here is a version of one he used to tell:

A farmer is returning after a long day in town, and his field hand runs out to greet him as he enters the property. He says "Boss, the old sow died from eating corn meal that had gone sour." Then they walk another few minutes and before they enter the house, he adds, "And all her piglets died too. I would have told you before, but I didn't know if you could take all the news at once."

Historians imagine this is the kind of story Lincoln would tell his cabinet to break the ice when things were going bad during the early months of the war. I have been trying to think up a similar story to break the bad news to others about the challenges that face us now as a nation. Let me try:

A voter returns from the polls and turns on the TV set and is told, "The candidate you voted for lost the race." Two years later a news announcer says, "The winner of that race was receiving huge sums of illegal contributions. Our station would have told you before but our owners didn’t know if you could take all the news at once."

Here is what I am trying to break to you: Our nation is in danger, not from outside terrorists, but from those we now trust. Large segments of the population really don't have control over our method of getting accurate information in order to base decisions on. A democracy cannot thrive without accurate sources of timely information. Those now in power are operating in secret. For those who have democratic ideals, the challenge facing us is here.

Today's challenge is much more slippery and hard to fight. How do we plan to take back our democracy? This is certainly as big a challenge as ever faced by previous generations in this country, and just as frightening because the stakes are so high. To have once had democracy and lose it to complacency, and be known as the generation that allowed that to happen, is terrifying.

Now I suppose you want me to lay out a clear plan of action with precise recommendations for you. You are not going to get off that easy. Each of you must seek out alternative sources of news and information before making decisions. Yes, and actually go to a county council meeting, even if just two times a year and you have to take off half day's work for it. It's your duty and you must face up to the challenge. Our democracy had been redefined and bought out from under us just as we were sitting back and enjoying it.

If you cannot find accurate news sources, then you must actively support new alternatives and seek out news on your own. This means:

• contribute to a new newspaper & demand better reporting;
• use the internet as a free speech tool;
• get on the board of a community radio station to encourage more local news programming;
• sit in on board meetings of the public access TV or utility boards, take notes and push for accountability;
• attend government meetings…whatever it takes.

A remarkable thing happens when people know they are being watched, known as the Hawthorne Effect. Human behavior improves when people know that they are being studied. All of these board members and council representatives will begin to behave in a more responsible way, because they know someone is watching. This is the purpose of the state's sunshine and open meetings laws, and some improvement may occur just from your immediate actions.
However, the job is not over. You have to report what you know to others in order to help fill the void of information. I know it’s not easy and it won't make you feel popular, but somebody has to rise up to this challenge of our generation. If at least one-third of us care enough to do a small part, we can reclaim our country.

But before we can do all this we have to get fired up enough to care. Just don't give up and say, let someone else worry about it; let someone else do my fighting for me. Fight the complacency.
If we choose to face this challenge, I must warn you to be prepared for the personal ramifications:

• some of the news is going to make us angry
• this anger must be channeled into productive energy, not turned on yourself or loved ones

Productive energy could be put toward organizing with other groups who are also facing challenges. This means more meetings and joining forces with others. Don't let the overwhelming task get you down. Slog through it. Democracy is worth it, and so many generations sacrificed so much to get it. The situation is serous. Some of the information and news you find may make you and others so angry the concept of reform no longer satisfies. What those in power (and it is commonly known that corporate lobbyists are now writing our national legislation) are most worried about is the angry one-third will get fed up with platitudes of reform, demand radical and swift change, and act to take back the system. That's when we really have to worry about the Patriot Act parts I and II, because those laws will be used against our own population. Ironically, the real patriots for U.S. democracy may be sent to prison over fighting against the Patriot Act.

A country's citizens face varying challenges during the development of the nation. The current generation is facing one now. The whole world is watching to see if U.S. citizens can face this challenge to democracy.


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